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Opinion How I became a ‘Christian nationalist’

In an image taken from video, a sign for the Friendship Baptist Church in Appomattox, Va., is seen on July 16, 2019. (WSET-TV/AP)
7 min

Kenneth L. Woodward is a former religion editor of Newsweek and the author of “Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics From the Age of Eisenhower to the Ascent of Trump.

A year ago, after Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia summoned her fellow Republicans to become “the party of Christian nationalism,” I began to read books about white Christian nationalists — and discovered that I am one of them.

That’s how I tested out when asked to what extent I agreed or disagreed with these six statements, which formed the basis of two academic studies:

The federal government should:

  • Declare the United States a Christian nation.
  • Advocate Christian values.
  • Enforce strict separation of church and state.
  • Allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces.
  • Allow prayer in public schools.
  • And finally: “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan.”

Respondents were sorted into four categories: ambassadors (strong support for all or some of the statements); accommodators (weak support); resisters (weak objections); and rejecters (strong opposition). Despite my total opposition to the first and last statements, my tempered support for the other propositions, mainly on First Amendment grounds, identifies me as an accommodator.

Being an accommodator of Christian nationalism is a daunting responsibility. My problem, though, is this: I don’t know any Christian nationalists.

Perhaps that’s because there are not in fact that many of them. A 2022 survey by the Pew Research Center found that more than half (54 percent) of adults in the United States had never even heard of the term “Christian nationalism,” and another 17 percent or so had heard only “a little bit.” Of the 14 percent who had heard “quite a bit” or “a great deal,” only 5 percent held a favorable view of it. Another 24 percent were unfavorable. That’s not a base broad enough to support a populist movement.

There was a time when I would have known numerous people who might have answered to the description “white Christian nationalist.” I’m sure my father, a White born-again Christian, was one. His generation lived through two world wars, an experience that made it very difficult to distinguish between nationalism and patriotism — or between religion and nationalism during the subsequent Cold War against atheistic communism.

Yes, most members of his generation were blind to the blatant racism that privileged them and theirs. Very few, I suspect, recognized the profound Christian nationalism of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. His was not the right image.

But if their white Christian nationalism did wear a human face, it was not of night-riding Klansmen in white hoods, but of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led America’s “crusade in Europe” as Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance as president, and in 1955 was declared (by the Republican National Committee) “not only the political leader, but the spiritual leader of our times.”

Now there was a real white Christian nationalist.

So where does one look for Christian nationalists today? Here again, the folks at Pew provide some helpful hints. A 2018 Pew survey introduced a new typology of American religion, dividing respondents into seven categories, ranging from highly religious to wholly secular.

Only the second group — known as God-and-Country Believers — comes close to the elusive notion of Christian nationalism. These Americans, 11 percent of the adult population, “hold many traditional religious beliefs and tilt right on social and political issues.” They are also much more likely than any other Americans “to see immigrants as a threat.”

It would appear, then, that the best place to meet a white Christian nationalist would be at church. But wait. According to Pew, these God-and-Country Believers are less likely to attend church than the 17 percent of Americans identified as the most religiously active Americans and labeled “Sunday Stalwarts.”

The fundamental problem with finding Christian nationalists is that no one can agree on what the term means.

In its 2022 survey, Pew shrewdly asks respondents what Christian nationalism means to them. Among the 45 percent who responded favorably to the idea of the United States as a Christian nation, the phrase is commonly interpreted to mean a country guided by “Christian” values such as honesty and tolerance and/or by a general belief in God. In short, almost any definition other than “a government-imposed theocracy.” Conversely, theocracy, or at least a governmental privileging of the nominally Christian U.S. majority, is exactly what the 51 percent who judge “Christian nationalism” unfavorably typically say it means.

Those who regard white Christian nationalism as a threat to the republic can find justification in the work of Robert P. Jones, founder and president of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Jones’s reputation rests primarily on two books investigating what he calls “White Christian America,” a protean social construct in which white separatists, white nationalists and white evangelical Protestants are made to coalesce.

In a February news release, the PRRI said that its latest survey showed that “two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants” and “most Republicans” are sympathetic to Christian nationalism. It also claimed that white Christian nationalism and its sympathizers “intersect” with racism and antisemitism, as well as anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and other reactionary views.

In fact, the PRRI’s summary of its report is deceptive. What the survey actually shows is that only 1 in 10 respondents identify as “adherents” of Christian nationalism, while three times as many (29 percent) vigorously oppose it. Nearly two-thirds of respondents occupy a muddled middle ground of “sympathizers” and “skeptics.” Only by lumping sympathizers with adherents can Jones claim that white evangelical Protestants are in any way supportive of Christian nationalism. This conflation of categories is precisely how I came to be identified as a white Christian nationalist.

I chose not to test myself using Jones’s five basic questions because they lacked the kind of precise wording necessary to ensure that all respondents interpret them in the same way. In fact, one question — “God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society”— made no sense to me at all.

It is possible, of course, that Jones is echoing religious argot he heard from the Southern Baptists he worshiped with in his youth. Indeed, as I read through the entire report, it struck me that the questions and expected answers are contoured by Jones’s personal journey away from his white evangelical Protestant roots. How else to explain his most radical finding: those who attend church most often (or say they do) and who consider religion “the most important thing in their lives” are also the Americans most likely to identify as strong “adherents” of Christian nationalism? That certainly will be news to the people at Pew, and especially to Black Christians, for whom churchgoing has traditionally been central to their lives.

Opinion surveys have their uses, but not when they produce stereotypes and scapegoats. I learned nothing from these polls about the kinds of work that white Christian nationalists are apt to do, where they fit in terms of income, education or social class. Worse, I cannot hear their voices, much less listen to their anger or their dreams.

I expect there are clusters of people out there who think of themselves as white Christian nationalists. Certainly, among the Klansmen, the neo-Confederates, the neo-Nazis and other alt-right groups who rioted in Charlottesville in 2017, there likely were some who would welcome the label. But these are not the people whom the surveys I’ve reviewed are constructed to identify. On the contrary, what these surveys show is that very few Americans even think of themselves as white Christian nationalists.

If I’m to be an accommodator of Christian nationalism, I’d still like to know what it is and whom I’m supposed to support.