Tilting at Windmills: The “Threat” of Christian Nationalism

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In Cervantes’ great novel, originally published as The Ingenious Knight Don Quixote of La Mancha but now commonly known by the name of its main character, Don Quixote, a would-be knight roams the land looking for wrongs to right. Early in his adventures, he comes across thirty or forty windmills which he perceives to be evil giants. Ignoring the warnings of his clear-headed squire Sancho Panza, Don Quixote jousts with the windmills and is quickly defeated. Shortly after the novel was published, the phrase “tilting at windmills” entered our common vernacular to refer to would-be heroes who attack figments of their imaginations.[1]

Over the past fifteen years, far too many quixotic journalists and academics have tilted at the windmill of Christian nationalism. Christian nationalism is defined by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, two of its more sensible students, as “an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture” that

“includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as ethnic and political as it is religious. Understood in this light, Christian nationalism contends that America has been and should always be distinctively “Christian” … from top to bottom — in its self-identity, interpretations of its own history, sacred symbols, cherished values, and public policies — and it aims to keep it this way.”[2]

If we accept Whitehead and Perry’s definition, as I do for this essay, orthodox Christians must soundly reject Christian nationalism.[3] Believers owe our first allegiance to God. Although American Christians may properly be patriotic, we must never conflate the omnipotent Creator of the universe with the United States of America.[4] And followers of Christ have profoundly Christian reasons for insisting that all men and women must be treated with dignity and respect.

Don Quixote mistakenly attacked windmills that he believed were evil giants, but that does not mean that evil giants don’t exist. I have no doubt that some American Christians hold the sorts of views described by Whitehead and Perry, and if we are not going to joust with them, we must at least attempt to correct them. If they are religious or civic leaders who are unwilling to be corrected, we should publicly reprimand them.

So, for instance, after the August 2017 white supremacist/Alt-Right rally and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Baylor Professor Thomas Kidd and I were troubled by the unwillingness of some political and religious leaders to unequivocally repudiate the protestors’ racism. We wrote a public letter that was signed by more than 250 Christian scholars of American history, politics, and law that made it clear that:

“Racism should be denounced by religious and civic leaders in no uncertain terms. Equivocal talk about racist groups gives those groups sanction, something no politician or pastor should ever do. As Christian scholars, we affirm the reality that all humans are created in the image of God and should be treated with respect and dignity. There is no good moral, biblical, or theological reason to denigrate others on the basis of race or ethnicity, to exalt one race over others, or to countenance those who do.”[5]

Few journalists or academics attributed the Charlottesville protest/violence to Christian nationalism per se, although many attributed the January 2021 assault on the Capitol to it.[6] In both instances, there are good reasons to believe that at least some protestors/rioters could be reasonably described as Christian nationalists. But are there enough Christian nationalists to warrant the shrill warnings proclaimed by many journalists and academics?

Whitehead and Perry answer this question with a resounding “Yes.” According to them, 51.9 percent of Americans partially or wholly support Christian nationalism (respectively labeled by them as Accommodators or Ambassadors).[7] Alarm would absolutely be warranted if a majority, or even a substantial minority, of Americans were supportive of “nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism.”[8] Fortunately, as we shall see, there are excellent reasons to conclude that Whitehead and Perry vastly overstate the percentage of Americans who are Christian nationalists, as they define it.

The Threat of Christian Nationalism

Whitehead and Perry are social scientists who make a good faith effort to define and measure Christian nationalism. Numerous other books have been written about the concept, usually by journalists, professors, and activists.[9] These authors describe a powerful but secret movement aimed at turning America into a theocracy run by white Christian males. For instance, Michelle Goldberg asserts in her 2006 book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, that “the ultimate goal of Christian nationalist leaders isn’t fairness. It’s dominion. The movement is built on a theology that asserts the Christian right to rule.”[10] Christian nationalists are often conflated with white evangelicals, whom Anthea Butler explains are part of a “nationalistic political movement whose purpose is to support the hegemony of white Christian men over and against the flourishing of others.”[11] Andrew Seidel asserts that Christian nationalists seek to codify “Christian privilege in the law, favoring Christians above others [and] disfavor[ing] the non-religious, non-Christians, and minorities.”[12]

Some critics of Christian nationalism at least acknowledge that its leaders are motivated by their understanding of biblical morality. Not so with Katherine Stewart, who explains in The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism that “the Bibles of Christian nationalism answer to the requirements of the individuals who fund the movement and grant it power at the highest levels.”[13] In her telling of the tale, the movement is fundamentally about a few powerful leaders who manipulate naïve religious conservatives for their own ends.

Stewart, like many of these authors, relies more on rhetoric than evidence. So, for instance, she describes Jerry Falwell, Sr., as “regularly spew[ing] toxins,” reduces Jack Phillips and Barronelle Stutzmen to “homophobic cake bakers and florists,” and explains the shift of some Republicans from being pro-choice to pro-life as the “closing of the Republican mind.”[14] By way of contrast, Stewart describes Democratic politicians including Joe Biden, Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, and Al Gore who, conversely, shifted from being pro-life to pro-choice as having “evolved.”[15] There is nothing wrong with criticizing those with whom one disagrees, but we must recognize that the works by many of these anti-Christian nationalist authors are impassioned polemics rather than serious studies. To his credit, Andrew Seidel acknowledges as much, observing that his book is “not a work of academic history but an argument, an attack. Specifically, it is an attack on Christian nationalism.”[16]

Books and articles specifically concerned with Christian nationalism in America have become increasingly common since 2006. Although they rely more on rhetoric than evidence, they do make some factual claims. I briefly consider two of these before returning to Whitehead and Perry’s study.

Christian Founding vs. Christian Nation

Critics of Christian nationalism almost inevitably claim that its adherents believe that America was founded as a Christian nation.[17] As the author of a book entitled Did America Have a Christian Founding?, a question that I answer with a resounding “Yes,” I have often been accused of arguing this position. For example, Andrew Seidel of the Freedom From Religion Foundation once described me as “the intellectual Zamboni of Christian nationalism.”[18]

The claim that America was founded as a Christian nation can be problematic. If those making it mean that America was founded exclusively for Christians, it is simply false. On the other hand, if the claim is merely descriptive — i.e., that when America was founded virtually all of its citizens and leaders would have identified themselves as Christians — it is true, but uninteresting.

Critics of Christian nationalism all complain that its adherents deny the “facts” that America’s founders were deists who created a godless constitution and who desired to strictly separate church and state. They are correct that many of the men and women they accuse of being Christian nationalists deny these “facts,” but it is the critics who are wrong. In Did America Have a Christian Founding? I demonstrate that these claims are false. Positively, I show that there are excellent reasons to believe that America’s founders were profoundly influenced by biblical and Christian theological ideas when they broke from Great Britain and created the constitutional republic under which we still live.[19]

To argue that America had a Christian founding is not to say that America was founded as an exclusively Christian nation. America’s founders clearly designed a constitutional order that welcomed citizens from any faith or no faith at all. For instance, Article VI of the U.S. Constitution bans religious tests for federal offices. The Founders understood that this meant Jews, Muslims, or atheists could hold any federal office, including the presidency.[20]

As well, the Founders were committed to the idea that the religious liberty of all citizens must be robustly protected. There were only about 2,000 Jews in America in the late 18th century, but nevertheless, President Washington wrote to the “Hebrew Congregation” in Newport, Rhode Island,

“All possess alike liberty and conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”[21]

America had a Christian founding, and all citizens benefit from this fact. In my view, it is imprudent to claim that America was founded as a Christian nation, but I am unaware of any major conservative Christian leader who means by this assertion that non-Christians are merely tolerated in the United States. It is true that some conservative Christians claim that non-Christians should not enjoy the same constitutional rights as Christians, a position I critique in Did America Have a Christian Founding? and elsewhere.[22] But to challenge the myths that America’s founders were deists who created a godless constitution and who desired the strict separation of church and state does not mean that one is a Christian nationalist.

The Influence of Rousas Rushdoony

Critics of Christian nationalism regularly trace the modern, American manifestation of this movement to the work of Rousas Rushdoony (1916-2001).[23] The child of immigrants who fled the Armenian genocide, Rushdoony became a Presbyterian minister and, in 1965, founded the Chalcedon Foundation, “a tiny Christian think tank with a modest budget and a few staff members.”[24] Heavily influenced by Abraham Kuyper and Cornelius Van Till, he embraced the view that Christianity should inform every aspect of life. In Kuyper’s words: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”[25]

Working from this premise, Rushdoony articulated a vision of a thoroughly Christian society. In a series of newsletters (which at their height reached 25,000-40,000 families) and books, Rushdoony laid out what he understood to be a biblical view of, among other things, government and law.[26] Calling Rushdoony a Christian nationalist is problematic because he had almost no interest in the United States as a nation. He argued that the Constitution “was not designed to make the United States a ‘nation’ but to federate already existing states.”[27] In his mind, political authority rests primarily with counties; states and the federal government should have dramatically less power than they came to assume in the 20th century.

Rushdoony is best known for contending that Christian societies should embrace and enforce Old Testament capital laws (sometimes referred to as theonomy). Eighteen offenses could be punished by death, including witchcraft, “incorrigible juvenile delinquency,” and homosexual activities by men (but not women).[28] Reconstructionists such as Rushdoony’s son-in-law Gary North emphasize that they are not calling for these capital laws now; they would emerge naturally as societies become more Christian (which, as postmillennialists, they were confident would happen).[29] But there is no question Rushdoony believed the Bible requires such laws and punishments. Walter Olson reports that:

“…two associates of the Rev. Jerry Falwell wrote an article which criticized Christian Reconstructionism, the influential movement led by theologian Rousas John (R.J.) Rushdoony, for advocating positions that even they as committed fundamentalists found ‘scary.’ Among Reconstructionism’s highlights, the article cited support for laws ‘mandating the death penalty for homosexuals and drunkards.’ The Rev. Rushdoony fired off a letter to the editor complaining that the article had got his followers’ views all wrong: They didn’t intend to put drunkards to death.”[30]

In addition to these views, Rushdoony emphatically insisted on male headship in families and churches, and some of his writings are described as racist.[31] He defended certain forms of slavery as permissible within Christian societies, although he was critical of the race-based chattel slavery that existed in the United States.[32] Collectively, his views make him the ideal embodiment of the evil giant of Christian nationalism.

Evil giants are scary, but evil pipsqueaks less so.[33] If, for the sake of argument, we concede that Rushdoony is something of a Christian nationalist, the question becomes, “How many followers did/does he have?” Julie Ingersoll believes the answer is “many.” For instance, she observed that in the 2010 midterm elections (which occurred as she was writing her book), “Reconstructionist influence could be seen everywhere: from Kentucky’s Rand Paul, who won his bid for the US Senate, to Nevada Tea Partier Sharron Angle, who lost hers” (emphasis added).[34]

Even if both Paul and Angle are Reconstructionists, pointing to two candidates is hardly evidence that Reconstructionist influence was “everywhere.” It is far from clear that either Paul or Angle are Reconstructionists, but it is the case that Nevada Senator Harry Reid, Angle’s opponent, tarred her as one. A 27-page dossier put out by his campaign asserted that she was part of a “dangerous secret society intent on turning the United States into a theocracy.”[35] Amy Gardner, a reporter for the Washington Post, remarked that this “was quite a stretch” and that:

“at its peak in the 1990s, the Christian Reconstructionist movement was small and mostly ignored. The group’s founder, R.J. Rushoony, tried to start a political party, but it went nowhere. When Rushdoony died nine years ago, the movement dried up.”[36]

Gardner erred in stating that Rushdoony attempted to start a political party, but other than that she was spot on. This is not to say that Rushdoony had or has no followers. The Republican political activist Howard Phillips, for instance, called him the “most influential man of the 21st century” and asserted that “the whole Christian conservative movement had its genesis in Rush.”[37] Phillips became disillusioned with the Republican Party and, in 1992, founded a political party “whose goal is to ‘reestablish’ biblical law as the foundation for American society.”[38] This party, now known as the Constitution Party, has won no federal offices, and its 2020 presidential nominee received .037 percent of the national vote.[39]

Phillips is the best known of Rushdoony’s followers and the clearest connection between him and the religious right, but after 1992 his influence in American politics was minimal. Rushdoony has a few other followers among idiosyncratic Calvinists throughout the United States, but he remains an obscure figure and those claiming to be his adherents are few. Kevin Clauson provided a nice summary of Reconstructionist individuals and organizations at the height of the movement:

“[T]here are several significant organizations (but as yet no major publications or educational institutions), including the Institute for Christian Economics and Geneva Ministries (Tyler, Texas), Chalcedon Foundation (Vallecito, California), American Vision and Council of Chalcedon (Atlanta, Georgia), which are all ‘think-tanks’; principal figures in the ‘movement,’ who may or may not be connected with one of the above organizations, include Dr. Gary North, Dr. Greg Bahnsen, Dr. R.J. Rushdoony, Rev. Gary DeMar, Rev. Joseph Morecraft, David Chilton, Rev. James Jordan, Rev. Robert Thoburn, and Dr. Herbert Schlossberg. It should be noted that not all of the groups or individuals agree with one another on many details.”[40]

Clauson’s last point is important. For instance, Gary North, Rushdoony’s son-in-law, was clearly influenced by his father-in-law, but they had a falling out in the early 1980s and never reconciled. They took related, but significantly different, approaches to Christian Reconstructionism.[41] Since 1988, the number of individuals and organizations willing to identify themselves as Reconstructionist has shrunk.

It is hard to portray a small, niche movement of idiosyncratic Calvinists as an evil giant. Accordingly, critics of Christian nationalism inevitably assert that Rushdoony influenced leading conservative Christians including Francis Schaeffer, D. James Kennedy, Pat Robertson, and David Barton.[42] It is the case that some of these individuals read and learned from Rushdoony, e.g., Schaeffer used his books in seminars at L’Abri and corresponded with him. And yet Schaeffer also denounced theonomy and, according to his son, thought Rushdoony was “clinically insane.”[43] Robertson and Kennedy explicitly renounced Rushdoony’s theocratic tendencies, and the claim that he influenced Barton is baseless.[44]

Julie Ingersoll dedicates an entire chapter of Building God’s Kingdom to “David Barton, Rushdoony, and the Tea Party.”[45] She acknowledges that Barton “does not explicitly identify as a Christian Reconstructionist,” but she sees influence nonetheless.[46] She makes the specific claim that he “occasionally cites the work of Rushdoony,” but the only evidence she offers is an essay written by Steven McDowell that appears on Barton’s Wallbuilders website.[47] This essay is discussed below, but suffice it to say that Barton’s permitting McDowell’s essay to be on his website is not the same thing as citing Rushdoony himself. Ingersoll gives no examples of Barton actually citing Rushdoony, and I have been unable to find any.

More broadly, Ingersoll asserts that Barton embraced Rushdoony’s approach to history.[48] It is true that Rushdoony believed America’s founders were influenced by Christianity, but he wrote relatively little about America’s founding, and when he did he made problematic claims such as:

“For the sake of argument, we may concede to the liberal, and to some orthodox Christian scholars, that Deism had made extensive inroads into America by 1776, and 1787, and that the men of the Constitutional Convention, and Washington, were influenced by it.”[49]

This sort of statement is far more likely to come from separationists such as Andrew Seidel than from David Barton, and it is a claim that I disprove in Did America Have a Christian Founding?

If one is truly interested in whether David Barton was influenced by Rushdoony, one might simply ask him. Ingersoll gives no indication that she attempted to do so, but I did. Barton responded to my query by acknowledging, “I’ve heard of Rushdoony, but I’ve never read any of his books. I don’t even know what they are.”[50]

Ingersoll similarly sees Rushdoony’s influence in Kirk Cameron’s 2012 film Monumental: In Search of America’s National Treasure. She observes that if it “had footnotes, they would have traced directly back to R.J. Rushdoony.”[51] Monumental is a documentary that argues that America’s founders were profoundly influenced by their Christian convictions. The movie may not have footnotes, but the book-length study guide by Stephen McDowell has 446 of them. The vast majority of them are to primary sources, and not a single one is to Rushdoony.[52]

Ingersoll is apparently unaware of the study guide penned by McDowell, but she describes his aforementioned essay on Barton’s website as being “drawn almost entirely from Rushdoony’s work.”[53] Six of the essay’s 41 footnotes are to Rushdoony’s Institutes; all of which concern the Bible’s teachings regarding slavery. But most of the essay is about the American founders’ views of slavery, and Rushdoony is never cited in these sections. This corresponds well with McDowell’s claim to me that Rushdoony has had some influence on his understanding of biblical law, but that “regarding providential history and in particular America’s Providential History, his [Rushdoony’s] writings have had no influence.”[54] Given the false assertion that Rushdoony defended American slavery, it is worth noting that both McDowell and Barton make it abundantly clear that American slavery was a grave evil that had to be abolished.[55]

Katherine Stewart, in The Power Worshippers, informs readers that Rushdoony’s “works were required reading for some classes at Regent University and Liberty University.”[56] She provides literally no evidence to support this claim, but let’s stipulate that it is likely true.[57] Even so, what does this show? Works by Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche have been “required reading for some classes” at every college and university I have taught at. I should know — I assigned them! But that certainly does not mean that I agree with them. I have assigned works with which I agree, and perhaps a few professors at Liberty and Regent did the same with works by Rushdoony, but the fact that his books were assigned in “some classes” is hardly evidence of massive influence.

Similarly, Julie Ingersoll claims that “I knew Reconstructionists on [Jerry Falwell’s] staff and saw Rushdoony’s books in his office [many] years ago.”[58] That may be the case, but two of Falwell’s lieutenants wrote an article in 1986 explaining how premillennial fundamentalists have significantly different political beliefs than postmillennialists like Rushdoony, observing that most evangelicals and fundamentalists find his views to be “scary” and rejoice that “he does not have a significant following.”[59]

Michael McVicar offers a sensible account of Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism, but even he cannot resist the temptation to overstate his subject’s influence.[60] Early in his book he writes that Rushdoony “became one of the most frequently cited intellectuals of the American right-wing,” and later he makes the more specific claim that Institutes of Biblical Law “was a familiar citation for law school faculty at Oral Roberts University, Pat Robertson’s CBN/Regent University, and Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.”[61] He offers no evidence to support either claim. Law professors often publish articles in law reviews, but since 1989 the Institutes has been cited in only thirty-one law review articles, and only four of these were written by faculty at the above-mentioned law schools. Usually, the work is cited by professors who criticize it.[62]

Opponents of Christian nationalism overemphasize Rushdoony’s influence because they see him as the embodiment of an evil giant that they wish to fight. Their primary goal seems to be to associate politically conservative Christians today with Rushdoony’s unpopular and often imprudently stated views. It is entirely reasonable to critique his positions, but we should not pretend that they are held by many Americans. The works discussed in this and the preceding section do not come close to proving that Christian nationalism is an evil giant. Let us turn now to a study that makes a more compelling case.

How Many Christian Nationalists Are There?

A major problem with much of the literature on Christian nationalism is that it is profoundly subjective, often amounting to little more than a critique that Christians are motivated by their faith to seek an end critics dislike. So, for instance, to be motivated by one’s faith to seek to end abortion is Christian nationalism, whereas to be motivated by one’s faith to end segregation is praiseworthy. [63] To their credit, Whitehead and Perry attempt to offer a social scientific definition of Christian nationalism (quoted above), although as we shall see they sometimes fall prey to subjectivism.

If Whitehead and Perry are correct that 51.9 percent of Americans are Christian nationalists, we should indeed be alarmed. In their study, they make it clear that not all Christian nationalists are racists, nativists, militarists, etc., but their book leaves the distinct impression that many Americans embrace these views. Yet there are good reasons to question their conclusions.

Whitehead and Perry rely on a battery of survey questions, given between 2007 and 2017, which ask respondents to state whether they strongly disagree, disagree, [are] uncertain, agree, or strongly agree with the following statements:

  1.  The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation.
  2. The federal government should advocate Christian values.
  3. The federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state. (The responses to statement 3 are “reverse coded” by the authors so that strong agreement with this proposition is recorded in the same way that strong disagreement is recorded for the other five.)
  4. The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces.
  5. The success of the United States is part of God’s plan.
  6. The federal government should allow prayer in public schools.[64]

Responses are ranked on a four-point scale, with zero points for “strongly disagree” to four points for “strongly agree.” I appreciate the authors’ good faith effort to scientifically measure Christian nationalism, but I don’t think their questions measure Christian nationalism, as they define the concept, very well. This is because respondents may understand five of the above statements in radically different ways.

It is possible to understand all of these statements in ways that privilege Christianity. The first statement clearly does this, and respondents might understand the second statement as asking about uniquely Christian values. They could understand statements three and four as permitting Christian but not non-Christian religious symbols in public places, the fifth statement as indicating God’s favoring the United States, and the sixth as requiring teacher-led Christian prayer in public schools. But the statements need not be understood these ways.

Please allow me to briefly share about how I understood these questions, and why I answered them as I did. I share my interpretation of them not because I am special, but because I think other respondents views them as I did. But first, a warning: I scored 20 points on the survey, which makes me a solid Christian nationalist — an Ambassador, even. Yet, as I hope has been evident, I thoroughly reject Christian nationalism as defined by Whitehead and Perry. Perhaps I am delusional, but I think a more likely explanation is that I understood five of the six statements as having nothing to do with privileging Christianity. Let me explain.

An important aspect of Christian nationalism is privileging Christianity above other religions.[65] The first statement gets at this issue reasonably well. I strongly disagree that the federal government should declare the United States to be a Christian nation for reasons noted above.[66] It is telling that only about 28 percent of respondents agree or strongly agree that the United States should issue such a proclamation — a far cry from the 51.9 percent cited by Whitehead and Perry.

For the second statement, I strongly agree that the federal government should advocate Christian values. Among the chief of these is the protection of innocent human life, religious liberty, and equal protection under the law. Paul Miller, a critic of Christian nationalism, offers a similar answer: “If you ask me, should the United States try to adopt Christian values? I would say yes because as Christians, we are called to work for justice and the common good, and to care for the poor.”[67] To be sure, these are not uniquely Christian values, but they are values that many Christians hold dear because of our biblical and theological convictions.

Statements 3 and 4 both get at the separation of church and state. Those advocating for this position have contended that it requires the removal of a World War I–era cross on public land, prohibits any public funds from going to private religious schools, and that at least some religious exemptions are impermissible.[68] I strongly disagree, as has the United States Supreme Court. Ironically, on more than one occasion I have argued against separationists that it is constitutionally permissible to place non-Christian religious symbols on public land and in favor of religious exemptions that protect non-Christian minorities.[69]

Admittedly, my Calvinist leanings led me to answer statement 5 with “strongly agree.” The success, and failure, of the United States is part of God’s plan. The same can be said for any country.

Finally, I strongly agree that the federal government should allow prayer in public schools. Teacher-led prayer of the sort struck down in Engel v. Vitali (1962) is a bad idea, but the Supreme Court has clearly held that students may gather in public schools for voluntary prayer and religious study.[70] I agree. For the federal government to forbid prayer in public school would be profoundly anti-religious. It seems evident that this question was intended to get at teacher-led prayer in public schools, but that is not how it was written.

Some readers will undoubtedly disagree with some of my answers and the reasons I gave for them, but hopefully it is clear that I do not improperly conflate God and country or believe Christianity should be privileged above other religions. And I would like to think that anyone who knows me (perhaps most of all my wife, an immigrant from the Middle East) would affirm that I do not support “nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism.”[71]

And consider this thought experiment. If the researchers replaced “federal government” with “government of Holland” in each of the statements, how would your answers differ? Mine would not change a bit. That is, I think the Dutch government should advocate Christian values, not strictly separate church and state, allow prayer in public schools, etc. If my answers are the same for both America and Holland, it is difficult to understand how they provide evidence that I am improperly conflating God and the United States of America.

One might object that I am a university professor and so am thinking about these statements differently than many respondents. There is truth to this, and yet Whitehead and Perry themselves present evidence that other respondents interpreted the statements along the lines that I did. They found, for instance, that 65 percent of African Americans are Christian nationalists.[72] So 65 percent of African-Americans embrace, among other things, white supremacy? How can this be? Critics of Christian nationalism have an explanation. According to the theologian Michael Horton, “The difference is that African-Americans appeal to the Christian nation narrative for greater social justice rather than to defend white privilege.”[73]

Although Whitehead and Perry assert something similar, their study gives little reason to believe that white evangelicals bring their faith into the public square to assert white privilege.[74] I agree that when African-Americans respond to the statement “the federal government should advocate Christian values,” they likely strongly agreed and had the Civil Rights Movement, among other positive causes, in mind. But, as Whitehead and Perry acknowledge, many whites were influenced by their faith to support civil rights as well.[75]

White evangelicals are more likely than African Americans to be Christian nationalists, but how do we think about the above statement? Anyone who has studied or spent time with white evangelicals knows that two of our greatest policy concerns are ending abortion and protecting religious liberty.[76] To our way of thinking, both causes advance justice and equality, not white supremacy. Perhaps anticipating this argument, Whitehead and Perry offer alternative explanations.

With respect to abortion, Whitehead and Perry explain that pro-life Americans are really committed to “male authority over women’s bodies.”[77] Indeed, they assert this twice without offering any empirical evidence or addressing the well-known fact that there is little difference between males and females when it comes to opposing all abortions.[78] Are pro-life females really committed to male authority over women’s bodies, or might it be the case that they are concerned with protecting innocent human life?

Similarly, Whitehead and Perry assert that Christian nationalists are redefining religious liberty to mean something more than freedom to worship; they want it to mean that one may act on one’s religious convictions in the public square.[79] The exact opposite is true. Religious liberty in the United States has always meant more than freedom to worship; after all, the First Amendment protects the “free exercise” of religion.[80] Sixty years ago, the liberal Justice William Brennan articulated an excellent test for interpreting the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, a test that protected a wide range of religious activities, far more than “mere” freedom of worship.[81]

Whitehead and Perry make a good faith effort to define and measure Christian nationalism, and I do not doubt that Christian nationalists, as they define the concept, exist. Their data reveal that far too many Americans continue to hold views that are reasonably characterized as nativist, sexist, and racist.[82] But there are excellent reasons to question their conclusion that 51.9 percent of Americans are Christian nationalists.

Conclusion

There are proper and improper ways of bringing one’s faith into the public square. Some Christians have made biblical and theological arguments in support of slavery, Manifest Destiny, anti-miscegenation laws, and other evils. On the other hand, throughout our nation’s history, other Christians have been motivated by their faith to fight slavery, oppose Indian removal, advocate for civil rights, promote religious liberty, and advance the common good in many other areas.[83]

Christian nationalism, as Whitehead and Perry define the concept, must be rejected by all orthodox Christians. But for fifteen years, its critics have mostly been tilting at windmills. Christian nationalism is an amorphous concept that is primarily used to tar Christians who are motivated by their faith to advocate for policies that critics don’t like. Rather than fret about the giant of Christian nationalism, we should directly address evils such as racism, sexism, and nativism. Facing these and other problems in a prudential manner is nowhere near as interesting as jousting with giants, but it is more likely to bring about just and equitable results.


Mark David Hall is Herbert Hoover Distinguished Professor of Politics and Faculty Fellow in the Honors Program at George Fox University. He is also Associate Faculty at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University and a Senior Fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. Mark has written, edited, or co-edited a dozen academic books, and in 2019 he published his first book for the general reading public: Did America Have a Christian Founding?: Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth.

Follow Mark on Twitter at @MDH_GFU.


[1] Cervantes, Don Quixote (New York: Penguin, 1950), 68-69.

[2] Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), xi-x, 10.

[3] It may be possible to radically redefine Christian nationalism, as my colleague Jacob Wolf argues in his essay.

[4] See Paul D. Miller, “What is Christian Nationalism?” Feb. 3, 2021, available at: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2021/february-web-only/what-is-christian-nationalism.html; and Paul D. Miller, “Christian Nationalism is Worse than You Think,” January 13, 2021, available at: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/podcasts/quick-to-listen/christian-nationalism-capitol-riots-trump-podcast.html (both accessed July 28, 2021). I think Miller is exactly right regarding patriotism vs. nationalism, but like many Christian authors/leaders, he uncritically accepts Whitehead and Perry’s findings.

[5] The letter is available at: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/evangelical-history/an-open-letter-from-christian-scholars-on-racism-in-america-today (accessed July 28, 2021).

[6] See, for instance, Thomas B. Edsall, “‘The Capitol Insurrection Was as Christian Nationalist as It Gets.’: Religious resentment has become a potential recruiting tool for the hard right,” New York Times (January 28, 2021) available at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/28/opinion/christian-nationalists-capitol-attack.html (accessed July 28, 2021). Edsall quotes a number of scholars who attribute the riot to Christian nationalism, but I have serious doubts about the extent to which this is accurate. I’ll address the January 2021 riot in a future, expanded version of this essay.

[7] Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back, 25.

[8] Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back, 10.

[9] I can only scratch the surface of the literature in this essay, which was supposed to be 3,500-4,500 words long (the editor generously let me have 5,500 words). I primarily focus on claims made by academics, journalists, or activists in respectable, primarily print, outlets. Between 1994 and 2021, 332 law review articles included the phrase “Christian nationalism,” 90 percent of which were published after January 1, 2006.

[10] Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), 7.

[11] Anthea Butler, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021), 138.

[12] Andrew Seidel, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American (New York: Sterling, 2019), 6.

[13] Katherine Stewart, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019), 34.

[14] Stewart, The Power Worshippers, 125, 164, 68.

[15] Stewart, The Power Worshippers, 68.

[16] Seidel, Founding Myth, 20.

[17] See, for instance, Goldberg, Kingdom Coming, 7; Stewart, Power Worshippers, 108, 128-131; Damon Linker, The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege (New York: Random House, 2006), 4; Seidel, Founding Myth, 17-18; Stewart, Nature’s God, 444-46.

[18] See Andrew Seidel’s closing comments in our September 2019 debate at the University of Louisville, available here: https://www.c-span.org/video/?463878-1/influence-christianity-americas-founders (accessed July 18, 2021). See also Matthew Stewart, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014), 444-446.

[19] Mark David Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding? Separating Modern Myth from Historical Fact (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2019). The book originated as a lecture at the Heritage Foundation, which was later published as an essay available here: https://www.heritage.org/political-process/report/did-america-have-christian-founding (accessed July 20, 2021).

[20] Did America Have a Christian Founding?, 145-46.

[21] Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall, The Sacred Rights of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American Founding (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 2009), 464.

[22] Did America Have a Christian Founding?, 145-46.

[23] See, for instance, Stewart, The Power Worshippers; Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom; Goldberg, Kingdom Coming.

[24] Michael J. McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservativism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 3.

[25] In Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1998), 488. Applying this insight to education, Rushdoony argued that Christian parents should provide a Christian education for their children. He had some influence in Christian school and Christian homeschooling movements, but even his critics acknowledge that a variety of factors contributed to these movements. Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom, 80-81.

[26] McVicar, Christian Reconstruction, 201.

[27] Rousas John Rushdoony, This Independent Republic: Studies in the Nature and Meaning of American History (1964; reprint Vallecito: Ross House Books, 2001), xiv.

[28] Rousas John Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (n.p.: The Craig Press, 1973), 77, 425.

[29] Kevin L. Clauson, “The Intellectual Elite of the Christian Right: The Political Theory of the ‘Reconstructionist’ Movement,” Journal of Political Science (November 1988). 28. For a brief overview of postmillennialism and its main American rival, premillennialism, see: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/views-of-the-millennium (accessed August 4, 2021). Virtually all of the well-known leaders of the Christian right, many of whom are accused of being Christian nationalists, reject postmillennialism.

[30] Olson, “Reasonable Doubts: Invitation to a Stoning: Getting cozy with theocrats,” Reason Magazine (November 1998) available at:

https://reason.com/1998/11/01/invitation-to-a-stoning (accessed July 28, 2021); Ed Dobson and Ed Hindson, “Apocalypse Now: What Fundamentalists Believe About the End of the World,” Policy Review (1986), 16-22.

[31] See, for instance, Rushdoony, Institutes, 199-208, 434-438.

[32] Rushdoony, Institutes, 136-37, 251, 485-86; Rushdoony, This Independent Republic, 64-65.

[33] For the record, I do not consider Rushdoony to be either evil or a pipsqueak. I think he is best understood as an idiosyncratic Calvinist who attempted to flesh out the implications of Cornelius Van Till’s and Abraham Kuyper’s ideas, especially with respect to law, politics, and economics. He clearly had some influence and some followers. The main point of this section is that he had nowhere near the sort of influence that critics of Christian nationalism claim.

[34] Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom, 173.

[35] Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom, 238.

[36] Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/13/AR2010081306224.html?wprss=rss_religion (accessed July 22, 2021).

[37] Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom, 1,2. This assertion is regularly referenced by critics of Christian nationalism. See, for instance, Stewart, Power Worshippers, 103.

[38] Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom, 142.

[39] See: https://ballotpedia.org/Presidential_candidates,_2020 (accessed July 21, 2020).

[40] Clauson, “The Intellectual Elite of the Christian Right,” 31. Some of these individuals have passed away, and some of these organizations have closed or been transformed. Were Clauson to update this list, he might well include some new Reconstructionists, but none would be household names.

[41] McVicar, Christian Reconstruction, 190f.

[42] See, for instance, Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom, 188-212; Katherine Stewart, The Power Worshippers, 102-03; and Steven Green, “The Legal Ramifications of Christian Nationalism,” Roger Williams University Law Review 26 (Spring 2021), 430-94.

[43] McVicar, Christian Reconstruction, 213.

[44] McVicar, Christian Reconstruction, 198-99. Others associated with Rushdoony have repudiated the movement as well. For a few additional examples, see Olson, “Reasonable Doubts: Invitation to a Stoning: Getting cozy with theocrats,” Reason Magazine (November 1998) available at:

https://reason.com/1998/11/01/invitation-to-a-stoning (accessed July 28, 2021).

[45] Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom, 188-212; McVicar, Christian Reconstruction, 196.

[46] Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom, 189, 268.

[47] Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom, 189.

[48] Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom, 188.

[49] Rushdoony, The Nature of the American System (1965; reprint: Vallecito: Ross House Books, 2001), 56. Rushdoony went on to state (accurately) that America’s founders were influenced by Calvinist ideas anyway, but his claim about deism in the founding era is simply wrong.

[50] Email from David Barton to Mark David Hall, July 21, 2021. Quoted with permission of the author.

[51] Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom, 209.

[52] Stephen McDowell, Restoring America as the Land of Liberty n.p.: Libertyman Studios, 2013). Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom, 205-06, 211, 222.

[53] Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom, 205-06. The URL Ingersoll provides took me to a different essay on WallBuilders: https://wallbuilders.com/confronting-civil-war-revisionism-south-went-war. However, the essay by McDowell that she describes is available here: https://wallbuilders.com/bible-slavery-americas-founders (both accessed July 27, 2020).

[54] Email from Stephen McDowell to Mark David Hall, July 22, 2021. Quoted with permission of the author.

[55] Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom, 205; McDowell, “The Bible, Slavery, and America’s Founders,” available at: https://wallbuilders.com/bible-slavery-americas-founders; David Barton and Tim Barton, The American Story (Aledo: WallBuilders, 2020), 285-300. The latter work contains 1,018 footnotes citing perhaps 10,000 sources, not a single one of which is by Rushdoony. For my view of slavery and the founding, see: https://www.standingforfreedom.com/2021/07/27/slavery-and-the-american-founding-should-1619-replace-1776-as-americas-founding-year (accessed August 4, 2021).

[56] Stewart, Power Worshippers, 103.

[57] Stewart cites McVicar, Christian Reconstruction, 9-10, to support this claim, but these pages offer no evidence to support her claims. Stewart, Power Worshippers, 295.

[58] Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom, xii.

[59] Dobson and Hindson, “Apocalypse Now,” 20.

[60] McVicar, Christian Reconstruction, 7.

[61] McVicar, Christian Reconstruction, 197.

[62] I arrived at these figures by searching law review articles in the Nexus Uni database, which goes back to 1982. It is possible that Christian law faculty regularly cited Rushdoony before 1982, or in publications other than law review articles, but it is the responsibility of someone making a factual claim to provide evidence to support it. The law school at Oral Roberts opened in 1979 and moved to Regent University in 1986, and Liberty’s law school opened in 2004. Rushdoony’s name appears in a total of 73 law review articles, whereas my name appears in 235 law review articles.

[63] See, for instance, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/15/christian-nationalist-religious-right-legislation-bills (accessed June 31, 2021).

[64] Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back for God, 7-9.

[65] See, for instance, Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back for God, ix-x, 4, 6, 9, 10.

[66] See my discussion of this point above.

[67] Paul D. Miller, “Christian Nationalism is Worse than You Think,” January 13, 2021, available at: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/podcasts/quick-to-listen/christian-nationalism-capitol-riots-trump-podcast.html (accessed July 28, 2021).

[68] American Legion v. American Humanist Association (2018), available here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/18pdf/17-1717_4f14.pdf; Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer (2017), available here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-577_khlp.pdf; Frederick Mark Gedicks and Rebecca G. Van Tassell, “RFRA Exceptions from the Contraception Mandate: An Unconstitutional Accommodation of Religion,” Harvard Civil Rights–Civil Liberties Law Review, Vol. 49, Issue 2 (Summer 2014), 343–384; Carl H. Esbeck, “Third-Party Burdens, Congressional Accommodations for Religion, and the Establishment Clause,” testimony before the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, February 13, 2015.

[69] See, for instance, “How Old Does a Monument Need to Be?” available at: https://lawliberty.org/how-old-does-a-monument-need-to-be; “Ritual Sacrifice of Chickens: Religious Freedom vs. Animal Cruelty Laws” available at: https://www.learnliberty.org/blog/ritual-sacrifice-of-chickens-religious-freedom-vs-animal-cruelty-laws (both accessed July 23, 2021).

[70] See, for instance, Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263 (1981). By a vote of 8-1, the justices required a university to allow a Christian organization to meet on campus on the same terms as other organizations. The majority included liberal icons William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall, but Christian nationalism critic Katherine Stewart nevertheless believes that Byron White, the sole dissenter, was correct. Katherine Stewart, Power Worshippers, 222.

[71] Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back, 10.

[72] Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back, 41.

[73] Horton video on gospel coalition.

[74] Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back, 41.

[75] Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back, 41.

[76] On abortion see: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/03/03/with-religion-related-rulings-on-the-horizon-u-s-christians-see-supreme-court-favorably/on religious liberty; and https://apnews.com/article/donald-trump-religion-u-s-news-virus-outbreak-reinventing-faith-535624d93b8ce3d271019200e362b0cf (both accessed July 30, 2021).

[77] Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back, 76.

[78] Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back, 76. 123. On male vs. female opposition to abortion over time, see: https://news.gallup.com/poll/245618/abortion-trends-gender.aspx (accessed July 13, 2021).

[79] Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back, 119.

[80] This is not to say, of course, that the religious liberty of minority groups has always been protected. See, for instance, my essay “Why Tolerate Religion? The Rise and Fall of Religious Liberty in America” in Citizens and Statesmen: An Annual Review of Political Theory and Public Life 12 (Fall 2019): 54-66.

[81] Sherbert v. Verner, 374 US 398 (1963).

[82] See, for instance, Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back, 101, 129.

[83] Mark David Hall, Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land: How Christianity Has Advanced Liberty and Equality for All Americans (forthcoming).