The term “Christian Nationalism” has been in the news lately, with some people denouncing it and others celebrating it. Unfortunately, it’s obvious from reading the commentary and the comments that people’s understanding of the term is all over the map.
If we are going to face the threat that Christian Nationalism and Christo-Fascism pose to our democracy, then we have to be clear on what what each of them is, and why they are a threat. This explainer will help us do that.
Let me be clear: this is a longer article than normal. But I encourage you to read it all the way to the end, then share it with others using the Share block at the end.
And if you call yourself Christian, it is especially important that you read all the way to the end.
Let’s get started.
Even though it seems that Christian Nationalism is a recent phenomenon, it actually has been present in one form or another since the founding of the United States. In fact, one writer lays out six different forms of Christian Nationalism from the Puritans to middle of the 20th century.
And, before World War II, there was the Silver Legion of America, which was led by William Dudley Pelley and combined American Christianity (specifically Protestantism) with American white nationalism.
Define your terms
One of the key tasks in understanding Christian Nationalism is being very clear about the terminology. Many people mush these terms together, then use that mushy definition to castigate others. So, let’s begin by defining terms.
The United States vs America – This may seem like a strange place to start, but I think it is critical to what follows. The United States is a country: a defined geographic region with its own government. (The United States is also a nation, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)
America, on the other hand, is an idea or a concept or even a set of ideas. These are laid out in its founding documents, such as “all are created equal” and “inalienable rights.” In 2016, House Speaker Paul Ryan said that “America is the only country founded on an idea.”
I think this is a critical distinction. One implication, of course, is that the United States could continue, but America could die.
Patriotism – Essentially, love of country. I would add that a mature patriotism loves one’s own country, while at the same time accepting others’ love of their country. Also, a true American patriot celebrates the idea of America as described above.
Nationalism – From Christianity Today, a good definition of nationalism:
“The belief that humanity is divisible into mutually distinct, internally coherent cultural groups defined by shared traits like language, religion, ethnicity, or culture. From there, scholars say, nationalists believe that these groups should each have their own governments; that governments should promote and protect a nation’s cultural identity; and that sovereign national groups provide meaning and purpose for human beings.”
Of course, the question arises: What does this mean for citizens of that nation that do not fit into or agree with the cultural identity? For example, if you define a nation as people of a certain race or ethnicity or religion, does that make people who don’t fit that definition as “less than”?
Two types of nationalism – Wikipedia goes further into the topic, and gives us an exceptionally useful distinction when we talk about nationalism.
The two main divergent forms are ethnic nationalism and civic nationalism. Historically, since the beginnings, the civic type of nationalism was the determinant factor in the development and spread of modern constitutional and democratic value system in the societies, however the ethnic nationalism has a tendency to prefer authoritarian rule or even dictature.
Civic nationalism, also known as democratic nationalism and liberal nationalism, is a form of nationalism that adheres to traditional liberal values of freedom, tolerance, equality, and individual rights, and is not based on ethnocentrism.
Ethnic nationalism, also known as ethnonationalism, is a form of nationalism wherein the nation and nationality are defined in terms of ethnicity, with emphasis on an ethnocentric (and in some cases an ethnocratic) approach to various political issues related to national affirmation of a particular ethnic group.
The central tenet of ethnic nationalists is that “nations are defined by a shared heritage, which usually includes a common language, a common faith, and a common ethnic ancestry.” Those of other ethnicities may be classified as second-class citizens.
Christian Nationalism: a form of ethnic nationalism
Having done the above work, it is easy to see how Christian Nationalism fits into the definitions: it is a form of ethnic nationalism, but instead of saying that the nation is defined by a particular race or culture, Christian Nationalism says that the nation is defined by a particular religion – in this case, Christianity, typically evangelical Christianity. Again from Christianity Today:
The belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way. Popularly, Christian nationalists assert that America is and must remain a “Christian nation”—not merely as an observation about American history, but as a prescriptive program for what America must continue to be in the future. Scholars like Samuel Huntington have made a similar argument: that America is defined by its “Anglo-Protestant” past and that we will lose our identity and our freedom if we do not preserve our cultural inheritance.
It is a fact that some groups came to this land to practice their religion unmolested. It is a fact that some of the founders of the nation were Christian. But it is also a fact that some were Deists, and some were agnostic or atheist.
And it is most assuredly a fact that the founders went out of their way to separate the world of organized religion from the work of governance. They had seen all too recently and all too dramatically the dangers of a state religion.
Nevertheless, adherents of Christian Nationalism fervently believe that the future of the United States depends on the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the nation – even to the point of proposing a constitutional amendment to make that the law of the land.
A few other terms to clear up
Christian/Religious Right – Christian political factions characterized by their strong support of socially conservative and traditionalist policies. Christian conservatives seek to influence politics and public policy with their interpretation of the teachings of Christianity. Note that while most Christian Nationalism adherents are also members of the Christian Right, the two terms and groups are not synonymous.
White supremacy – White supremacy is the belief that white people are superior to those of other races and thus should dominate them. The belief favors the maintenance and defense of any power and privilege held by white people. As a political ideology, it imposes and maintains cultural, social, political, historical, and/or institutional domination by white people and non-white supporters.
White nationalism – If you go back to the definition of ethnic nationalism, the definition of white nationalism is clear: Belief that the United States should be defined by white supremacy.
Having laid out these terms and these various groups, I should note that I tried to draw a Venn diagram of them all, but gave up the effort as basically impossible. Why? Because the groups overlap and co-mingle in a multitude of ways: Some Christian Nationalists are also white nationalists, but some are not; some white supremacists are definitely not Christian; and so on. So, let’s just note this:
Not all Christian nationalists are white. Not all white supremacists are Xian. Not all evangelicals are white supremacists / white nationalists / Xian nationalists. And many Christians are not members of any of these groups.
Current Christian Nationalism
I struggled to come up with a good term for this group. I considered both “generic” and “amorphous.” I finally settled on “unreflective” to indicate “they hadn’t really thought about it, or their thinking was very much surface only.”
According to Pew Research, “most Americans think the founders of America intended for the U.S. to be a ‘Christian nation,’ more than four-in-ten think the United States should be a Christian nation, and a third say the country is a Christian nation today.
“However, Americans’ views of what it means to be a Christian nation are wide-ranging and often ambiguous. To some, being a Christian nation implies Christian-based laws and governance. For others it means the subtle guidance of Christian beliefs and values in everyday life, or even simply a population with faith in something bigger.”
If you hear someone saying that America should be a Christian nation and that most people agree with them, ask them to define “Christian nation.” Then ask them if this means Jews, for example, can’t live in America. It’s important to probe what people mean by the term, as shown by the Pew study.
Christian reconstructionism is a movement that believes all of society should be reconstructed under the lordship of Christ. It is a fundamentalist Calvinist movement, founded by R.J. Rushdoony and his son-in-law, Gary North.
One of the key tenets of reconstructionism is theonomy (“God’s law”), a hypothetical Christian form of government in which society is ruled by divine law. “Theonomists hold that divine law, particularly the judicial laws of the Old Testament, should be observed by modern societies. and the restoration of certain biblical laws said to have continued applicability. These include the death penalty not only for murder, but also for idolatry, open homosexuality, adultery, witchcraft, and blasphemy.”
Dominionism grew out of reconstructionism, and is the belief that Christians are called to exercise dominion over all aspects of the nation. Thus, Christians should work to institute a nation that is ruled by Christians and based on their understanding of biblical law.
The name comes from Genesis 1:26-30 –
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.
Some theologians interpret the above passage to mean that humans are to be stewards of the earth. Dominionists, however, focus on the word “dominion” and believe it means “control” or “govern” or “rule.”
Current dominionism is focused on the “seven mountains” where Christians should exercise dominion: government, education, media, arts and entertainment, religion, family, and business. So if you hear a church call itself a “seven mountains church,” you can be pretty sure they are a Christian dominionist church.
So, if you’re going to take over the nation and exercise dominion on those seven mountains of society, you need a plan, right? It’s got to be a long-term plan, and it’s got to start slow so people don’t catch on (the “frog in the boiling pot” principle).
Enter Project Blitz.
From BlitzWatch: “Project Blitz is a coordinated effort by Christian Nationalists to inject religion into public education, attack reproductive healthcare, and undermine LGBTQ equality using a distorted definition of ‘religious freedom.’
“In order to achieve these goals, the Project Blitz campaign arms state-level politicians with model bills, proclamations, and talking points through its legislative guide.”
The initial Project Blitz playbook included six steps. As you read these, think back through the bills that have been introduced in the Kentucky Legislature over the past few years:
- National Motto display laws (“In God We Trust”)
- Teaching the Bible in public schools
- National Motto license plate funding
- Religious Freedom Day proclamations
- Discrimination in foster care and adoption
- Religious refusals in healthcare
Yes, every one of these have been introduced in the Kentucky General Assembly – and some have become law. We already have a law requiring “In God We Trust” to be displayed in every public school. In the 2022 session, the House passed HCR 33 to recognize January 16 as “National Religious Freedom Day.”
And also in the 2022 session, HB 570 was introduced to allow all health care providers to refuse to provide any care that violated their conscience. The bill didn’t make it out of committee, but it came back in 2023, and no doubt will be back in 2024.
Project Blitz pushes its work forward through legislative “prayer caucuses.” These are groups formed in state legislatures not only to pray, but to share model bills and to coordinate the work. Kentucky’s organization can be found here, and is led by Mike Corder and Beth Cooper.
– attributed to Sinclair Lewis, but actually source unknown
I hesitated to include this section, as I’m well aware of Godwin’s law. But Godwin himself said that if a movement showed the signs of fascism, then it was perfectly acceptable — and necessary — to call it fascist.
Definition of fascism
So first, we need to nail down fascism. It is a word thrown around both too much and too little, and often confused with authoritarianism in general. All authoritarianism is not fascist ... but all fascism is definitely authoritarian.
From Wikipedia (I have highlighted words that are particularly pertinent to this discussion):
Fascism is a far-right, authoritarian, ultranationalist political ideology and movement, characterized by a dictatorial leader, centralized autocracy, militarism, forcible suppression of opposition, belief in a natural social hierarchy, subordination of individual interests for the perceived good of the nation and race, and strong regimentation of society and the economy.
Opposed to anarchism, democracy, pluralism, liberalism, socialism, and Marxism, fascism is placed on the far-right wing within the traditional left–right spectrum.
Let us be clear: fascism didn’t end with Hitler’s death in his bunker. Numerous countries have moved from democracy to authoritarianism to fascism, and continue to do so today. Examples include Russia, Hungary, and Poland.
And while Sinclair Lewis may not have said exactly the quote at the top of this section, he did write It Can’t Happen Here, about a character named Buzz Windrip who turns the U.S. into a fascist state (and who is amazingly like Trump).
Finally, then, let us turn to Christo-fascism. The term was invented by the German liberation theologian Dorothee Sölle in 1970, as she worried about trends she saw in American Christianity.
How, then, should we define Christo-fascism today? Here are two definitions from my research. First, from Daily Kos:
- Christo-fascism refers to use of the faith of Christianity as a cover for totalitarian ideology.
And from an article in Vice:
- Christian nationalists believe that their country’s policies and laws should reflect evangelical Christian values, and culture war issues like LGBTQ rights, “critical race theory,” or immigration, are regarded as signs of moral decay that imperil the nation’s future.
- Christo-fascists take that one step further, and believe that they’re fighting primordial battles between West and East, good and evil, right and left, Christians and infidels.
Consider, especially, that second bullet above. If you believe you are a warrior for God, doesn’t the end justify the means? Isn’t conquering the world for Christ more important than anything else – including the law, democracy, and even the lives of others?
Thus, the distinction I make between Christian nationalists and Christo-fascists is this:
Christo-fascists want to establish an authoritarian Christian nation, and are willing to break the law, to use violence and force, and even to kill to make it happen.
Are there Christo-fascists among us today? Absolutely. Remember that the Proud Boys knelt in prayer before they attacked the Capitol. One insurrectionist said later that even after being wounded, he was determined to get into the Capitol so he could “plead the blood of Jesus over it.”
Let me close with two thoughts.
First, there is evidence that ethnic nationalism almost always ends in violence. The examples are many: Nazi Germany, of course, but also Czechoslovakia, the Sudan, and Rwanda. If the Christo-fascist forces can’t have their way, will they also resort to violence? Or, if they do succeed in establishing their ideology through force, will the resulting second-class citizens remain second class?
This is why I find the above definition of “civic nationalism” so helpful. Our vision of America and our loyalty to it should be founded on the unifying ideals of democracy, personal freedom, and the equality and rights of each person. Such a nationalism values the diversity of our nation as a strength to be celebrated and not a weakness to be eliminated.
Second, to my readers who claim the word Christian for themselves: consider this closing of an article by Paul Bowers, who includes a quote from Dorothy Sölle herself:
“For those of us who count ourselves as followers of Jesus, it should nauseate us to see, as Eduardo Galeano wrote, ‘the sign of the cross on the handles of swords.’
“Sölle’s words rebuke us again today:
“At a mass meeting a thousand voices shouted: ‘I love Jesus’ and ‘I love America’ — it was impossible to distinguish the two. This kind of religion knows the cross only as a magical symbol of what he has done for us, not as the sign of the poor man who was tortured to death as a political criminal … This is a God without justice, a Jesus without a cross, an Easter without a cross — what remains is a metaphysical Easter Bunny in front of the beautiful blue light of the television screen, a betrayal of the disappointed, a miracle weapon in service of the mighty.”
“A church that celebrates power and laughs at weakness is not the church of Christ. It is a church of something else, and it’s worth our time to name it.”