One of the longest-standing principles of American democracy — the separation of church and state— is under attack by people embracing Christian nationalism. That ideology says that the U.S. is and should remain a Christian nation and that Christianity should be prioritized by the state. Even when it is not stated, Christian nationalism implicitly calls for the U.S. to be a white Christian nation.
By definition, Christian nationalism is incompatible with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
By definition, Christian nationalism is incompatible with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the government from imposing or endorsing a particular religion. But Christian nationalists would prefer that we ignore that founding document.
In April, Doug Mastriano, Pennsylvania’s Republican nominee for governor, called the separation of church and state a "myth." That same month, Maryland’s Republican nominee for governor, Dan Cox, told a crowd that his platform “recognizes the creator” and said “we have rights that supersede government.”
It’s not just Mastriano and Cox. A growing number of Republicans now espouse Christian nationalism. Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado argued in June that “the church is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia put it more bluntly in July. “I’m a Christian and I say it proudly,” she said. “We should be Christian nationalists.”
Illustrating that Christian nationalist ideas are moving further and further into the mainstream, a September poll by Politico found that 61% of Republicans and 17% of Democrats believe the U.S. should declare itself a Christian nation. The poll also found that “white grievance is highly correlated with support for a Christian nation.” Indeed, as the Christians Against Christian Nationalism website explains, Christian nationalism “often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation.”
The even more dangerous aspect of Christian nationalism is its acceptance of the inevitability of violence. Christian nationalism argues that Americans are an exceptional, chosen people who will eventually face an apocalyptic end-times battle. This us-versus-them thinking positions the “other” as a dire threat that has to be defeated out of a moral duty to defend Christian values and prevent the nation from falling into darkness.
And that “other,” increasingly, is the other major political party, the Democrats, or as some Republicans now call them, “demoncrats.”
A September Politico poll found that that 61% of Republicans and 17% of Democrats believe the U.S.
Earlier this year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, quoting the New Testament Book of Ephesians, called on a crowd to “put on that full armor of God” and stand firm against “the left’s schemes.”
“You’ll be met with flaming arrows,” he warned, “but the shield of faith will stop them.”
This twisting of the scriptures to make partisan arguments is classic Christian nationalist rhetoric, which consistently emphasizes a battle between good and evil and between purity and contamination. More and more, Americans are being called on by Christian nationalists to join the so-called righteous fight against degradation and degeneracy, which they increasingly argue is coming from the morally bereft or perverse left. Three years ago, the journalist Anne Nelson described standing at a Fort Worth rally for Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican, while nearby supporters referred to Democrats as “demons” and called then-Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat, the “son of Satan.”
American conservatives aren’t the only ones who’ve adopted such language. In a speech last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who launched an unprovoked attack against Ukraine in February, described the entire Western world as Satanists. Also last month, the head of the Russian Orthodox church, Patriarch Kirill, said that Russian soldiers who die in Ukraine will be cleansed of all their sins.
Whether here or abroad, this constant juxtaposition of good and evil is dangerous. As Lilliana Mason and Nathan Kalmoe have shown, partisan moral disengagement, which means “seeing the other party as evil, less than human and a serious threat to the nation,” is a predictor of pro-violence attitudes.
We’ve already seen how this kind of rhetoric has mobilized violence against the LGBTQ community. Christian nationalist groups have helped introduce anti-LGBTQ legislation in states across the nation, often based on false arguments about harm that fly in the face of what the medical field knows, for example, about the importance of trans people’s health and well-being.
As those efforts have ramped up, so have violent threats and attacks against medical providers who offer gender-affirming care and treatments. Last month, after false claims about its gender-affirming care circulated on Twitter, Children’s National Hospital in Washington was threatened with violence. Those threats followed bomb threats against Boston Children’s Hospital and other violent threats against hospitals in Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Akron, Ohio, and Nashville, Tenn., because of their gender care programs.
Christian nationalism is not Christianity. Nor is it ordinary patriotism or mere pride in being American.
Let me be clear, Christian nationalism is not Christianity. Nor is it ordinary patriotism or mere pride in being American. It is a perversion of both Christianity and patriotism. That’s why over 24,000 clergy, church leaders and lay people from across the U.S. have signed a statement of “Christians against Christian Nationalism,” which argues that Christian nationalism is “distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy.”
Christians who run for office on a platform that denies the separation of church and state are dangerous to our democracy. Even if they don’t win, their views become more normalized.
Michael Peroutka, a long-shot Republican candidate for attorney general in Maryland, says that, if elected, his decisions as attorney general will follow from his interpretation of Christianity. He will not, he says, support already-enacted laws if they don’t align with “his understanding of God’s law.” In his interpretation of Christianity, there can be no same-sex marriage, all abortions are illegal, and public schools are a threat to a Christian worldview.
At this moment of democratic crisis, it’s critical to remember that our nation’s founders sought to create a country whose government would not interfere with anyone’s religious choice — or promote any single religion. In this sense, Christian nationalism is not just undemocratic; it’s profoundly un-American.