The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Christian nationalism is surging. It wasn’t inevitable.

How the decline of liberal religion transformed American Christianity — and politics.

A man holds a Bible as Trump supporters gather outside the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)
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Standing behind the rostrum of the House chamber on Jan. 6, 2021, Jacob Chansley, one of the now-convicted protesters who stormed the Capitol that day, began to pray. “Thank you, Heavenly Father, for being the inspiration needed to these police officers to allow us into the building, to allow us to exercise our rights, to allow us to send a message to all the tyrants, the communists and the globalists that this is our nation, not theirs.”

Chansley’s prayer was part of a troubling chorus of Christian nationalism heard during the insurrection that day. From White House insider Paula White to pastors storming the Capitol, calls rang out for God’s help in returning the nation to its rightful owners: White, conservative Christians.

This Christian nationalism is guided by the fervent belief that the United States was founded by and for Christians and that its borders are sacred. A fear of sinister forces beyond America’s shores also propels Christian nationalism. These ideas are as old as the United States but Christian nationalism wasn’t always a major force in politics. And its rise is as much about the stumbles of its opponents in the period before the Religious Right began to dominate American politics in the 1970s as the success of those promoting this ideology.

Between the 1930s and the 1960s, the most prominent religious leaders in America were liberals, not conservatives. Powerful but now-forgotten figures such as G. Bromley Oxnam, Douglas Horton and Georgiana Sibley graced the cover of Time magazine and had the ear of presidents as they pushed for liberal legislation seeking to expand Social Security, implement universal health care and allow interracial marriage. These scions of liberal Protestantism walked the corridors of power, while also shaping the religious values of small towns and rural areas.

These liberal Protestants loudly criticized Christian nationalism as “complacent, paternalistic, [and] imperialistic,” in the words of evangelist Sherwood Eddy. They took part in an ecumenical, global movement that bred connections to Christians from Latin America, Africa and Asia. These ties drove American liberal Protestants to become some of the most important supporters of the United Nations and universal human rights.

When the United States entered World War II in late 1941, they agreed to support the war only if the country’s leaders discarded Christian nationalism. During a war against fascism, they sought to root out the presence of that system’s values in the United States. In 1942, they urgently wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to denounce the internment of Japanese Americans. Telling a wartime president that his policy “savours of totalitarianism” was a bold stand.

After the war, liberal Protestants saw connections between domestic politics and the internationalism that they embraced. The Federal Council of Churches, which acted like liberal Protestantism’s think tank and political action committee, called on the government to take better care of America’s poor and empower labor unions. It was also one of the first predominantly White organizations to call for an end to segregation. The organization’s leaders saw each step as a prelude to a new world order based in liberal values and centered on an international government. They vigorously supported the creation of the United Nations in 1945.

Yet, these views did not go unchallenged in the Christian community. The creation of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942 signaled the beginnings of the modern evangelical movement. Evangelicals quickly and explicitly rejected the postwar one-world vision held by liberal Protestants. In 1945, they decried the United Nations as a “godless … child of illegitimate alliances, born lame and due to die in the further catastrophes that come upon the earth.”

In 1947, NAE allies in Congress introduced the “Christian Amendment,” which would have changed the U.S. Constitution to recognize “the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of all nations, through whom are bestowed the blessings of Almighty God.” With anticommunism at a fever pitch in 1954, Congress seriously debated the amendment before voting it down.

This vote signaled that liberal Protestants had far more political influence than evangelicals in this period. Liberal denominations were composed of disproportionately White and wealthy churchgoers — the sorts of people whose positions drew the attention of elected officials. The denominational organizations spent their resultant political capital defending positions that were sometimes unpopular with the public — and on occasion, even their congregants. Liberal Protestant leaders, for example, defended the deeply unpopular Supreme Court rulings that banned prayer and Bible reading in public schools in the 1960s in the name of religious pluralism.

The influence of these liberal Protestants helped keep Christian nationalism at bay and made room in the public square for Jews and Catholics, as well as for Americans who were not religious. They remained stalwarts of liberal politics through the 1960s, especially championing civil rights.

Yet, as the national leaders of the United Methodists, Northern Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ lived out their religious values by pushing a liberal vision for the United States and the world, they began to recognize that the laity in their churches were much more conservative. This clergy-laity gap in values wasn’t new, but in the 1960s it widened into a chasm. Pastors’ exhortations to the pews sometimes fell flat, especially among the wealthier laypersons, who did not understand why their ministers were heading to Selma, Ala., to march with “radicals” like Martin Luther King, Jr. In response, the laity started withholding donations in protest.

Meanwhile, young people had been inspired by the liberal values of ecumenical Christianity, but many did not find those values expressed in their more conservative home churches. As the political winds shifted further to the left in the 1960s, some baby boomers saw the contradictions between what national leaders were saying and the more cautious and conservative views that predominated in the pews. For example, in the mid-1960s a slight majority of national Protestant leaders wanted to bring U.S. troops home from Vietnam, while 55 percent of Americans wanted to increase bombing of the country. Many young people concluded that civil rights and human rights organizations were doing a better job living out Christian values than Protestant churches. They began abandoning churches in droves.

As young people left the churches and conservatives closed their pocketbooks, these “mainline” churches entered a period of crisis in the 1970s. Meanwhile, evangelicals delayed this reckoning by a few decades by making worship more entertaining and by promoting a patriarchal worldview. Telling women to marry at a young age, drop out of the workforce and have lots of children turned out to be a good strategy for keeping evangelical churches full, at least for a while.

This dichotomy created an imbalance in the politics of American Christians: liberal, mainline Protestant denominations no longer had the demographic or financial resources to effectively counter the Christian nationalism coming out of the growing evangelical movement.

Without liberal Protestants as a political counterweight, the evangelical right seized the moment in the 1970s and allied itself wholeheartedly with the Republican Party. Paul Weyrich’s New Right, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and the broader religious right all emerged, helping to elect Ronald Reagan, the trailblazer of modern conservatism.

Of course, not all evangelicals were Christian nationalists. In the 1970s, many evangelicals had joined a burgeoning international humanitarian movement, which led some to reconsider their prejudices in the same way ecumenical Protestants had begun doing in the 1920s. But the evangelical movement continued to provide a home to those who believed — especially on the heels of major social change in the 1960s — that the United States belonged to God-fearing, White, conservative Christians.

In the absence of a powerful, liberal community speaking to believers as fellow Christians and bringing their message to places like the hillsides of Appalachia and the Pennsylvania Wilds, Christian nationalism has run rampant over the past four decades. This history exposes how the best counter to Christian nationalism might be Christian internationalism, and a religious community that can serve as a political counterweight to far-right evangelical Christianity.

“We need your help in these troubled times,” said Episcopal Bishop Michael B. Curry on the steps of the Capitol in his prayer at the commemoration of the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection. He was speaking to God, of course, but he might as well have been talking to American Christians on the left.

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