The Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol brought the Christian nationalist movement into sharp focus.
Christian symbols prominently displayed on banners and T-shirts as well as faith-filled messages that fueled the fire that day forced many to consider the role that white Christians’ religiously motivated rage plays in U.S. politics.
But Christian nationalism exists beyond U.S. borders. It is a global phenomenon.
In Europe and the Americas, far-right leaders are invoking a heady mix of racialized, religious rhetoric to rally support, upturn elections and threaten the democratic order. From Hungary to Italy, Brazil to Russia, Christian nationalism plays an increasingly critical role in the far right’s growing power and appeal.
This edition of ReligionLink provides background on what Christian nationalism is, stories that show how it is influencing politics worldwide and experts to help reporters and readers better understand its heady mix of ideological politics and national identity.
What is Christian nationalism?
Definitions of Christian nationalism — and its racialized or context-specific varieties — differ. But at the heart of Christian nationalism is a desire that a nation’s civic life be defined by Christianity— in its identification, history, symbols, values and public policies— and that government take active steps to enforce this view and impose it on the populace.
Sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry define Christian nationalism as “a cultural framework that blurs distinctions between Christian identity and American identity, viewing the two as closely related and seeking to enhance and preserve their union.”
Similar definitions have been offered for other kinds of radical-right religious populism across the globe that rely on fear provoked by the shift from privilege to plurality and the present (or former) majority becoming a racial or cultural minority.
The term has become a “culture-war acid test” since Jan. 6, 2021, according to Religion News Service’s Roxanne Stone, drawing ire on one side of the political divide while attracting a heterogeneous mix of strange bedfellows claiming the moniker on the other.
But not everyone who meets the definition claims the name. Furthermore, some who could not justifiably be labeled “traditional Christians” have taken it on as a means of gaining influence and power.
Others, such as sociologist Philip Gorski or theologian Richard Mouw, are careful to delineate between “Christian nationalism” and being a “patriotic Christian.” The latter, writes Gorski, features “an adherence to the ideals of the United States [while] nationalism is loyalty to your tribe and not the country.” Shifting away from more traditional forms of political activism on the religious right, Christian nationalists assert instead that a nation cannot be evangelized into transformation, but that Christians — or those who align with their political values and views — need to be in power.
Despite the debates, most Americans remain unfamiliar with the term, and their views of what it means to be a Christian nation are wide-ranging and often ambiguous. Among those who know the term, more people express an unfavorable view of Christian nationalism than those who hold it in high regard, according to Pew Research Center. Furthermore, views of Christian nationalism in the U.S. imply assorted levels of Christian influence on the nation, ranging from strict theocratic rule to merely embracing certain moral values as a means to helping others.
Below are background and other resources to further understand Christian nationalism:
- Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, by Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry
- Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding, by Steven K. Green
- White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, by Robert P. Jones
- Testimony: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Failed a Generation, by Jon Ward
- The Psychology of Christian Nationalism: Why People Are Drawn In and How to Talk Across the Divide, by Pamela Cooper-White
- Doing Theology in the Age of Trump: A Critical Report on Christian Nationalism, edited by Jeffrey W. Robbins and Clayton Crockett
- Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, by Jon Fea
- Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild
- Faith and Resistance in the Age of Trump, edited by Miguel A. De La Torre
- Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement From the Margins to the Mainstream, by Leonard Zeskind
- “White Christian Nationalism: The Deep Story Behind the Capitol Insurrection,” by Philip Gorski
- “What is Christian nationalism?” by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty
- “A Concise Introduction to Christian Nationalism,” by Interfaith Alliance
- “Talk of ‘Christian nationalism’ is getting a lot louder – but what does the term really mean?” by Eric McDaniel
- “Culture Wars and COVID-19 Conduct: Christian Nationalism, Religiosity, and Americans’ Behavior During the Coronavirus Pandemic,” by Samuel L. Perry, Andrew L. Whitehead and Joshua B. Grubbs
- “Christian Nationalisms and Building New Social Realities,” by Sarah Riccardi-Swartz
- “Religious Nationalism in Brazil,” by Carly Machado
- “In their own words: How Americans describe ‘Christian nationalism,’” by Pew Research Center
- “What Does ‘White Christian Nationalism’ Even Mean, Anyway?” by Mitchell Atencio
- “Crisis of faith: Christian nationalism and the threat to U.S. democracy,” by Edward Lempinen
- “Understanding White Christian Nationalism,” from Yale University’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies
- “Is Christian nationalism growing or declining? Both,” by Samuel L. Perry and Andrew L. Whitehead
- “What Is Christian Nationalism?” by Paul D. Miller
- “Uncivil Religion,” a collaborative digital project between the department of religious studies at the University of Alabama and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
- “Charismatic Revival Fury: The New Apostolic Reformation,” an audio-documentary series on the Christian leaders and ideas that fueled the Capitol riot, written by Matthew D. Taylor, produced by Bradley Onishi and engineered by Scott Okamoto
- “Christian Nationalism & Christian Supremacy,” an online guide and set of resources for further learning produced by the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies
How has Christian nationalism 'gone global'?
According to Nilay Saiya, assistant professor of public policy and global affairs at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, “Christian nationalism is a political ideology that advocates for the fusion of a particular form of Christianity and a country’s civic and political life, and for a privileged place for Christianity in the public realm.” This theology is not linked to any one nation but has been surging in different forms across the globe.
While U.S. media have largely focused on Christian nationalism at home, especially given the visible presence of Christian nationalism during the 2021 Capitol insurrection, Christian nationalism is a global issue, argues Saiya in his book The Global Politics of Jesus: A Christian Case for Church-State Separation.
For example, evangelical support for Viktor Orbán’s nationalist policies in Hungary and Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) leader Giorgia Meloni’s promise to “defend God, country and family” en route to becoming Italy’s first female prime minister illustrate how Christian nationalism has grown as part of the political far right in Europe. This also includes its influence in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro’s political rise and the country’s post-election turmoil in 2023 shared “religious roots” with its twin insurrection in the States, according to scholars Raimundo Barreto and João B. Chaves.
Camila Vergara, writing for Politico, said these far-right populists “are selling popular empowerment based on the discrimination and oppression of ‘the other’: immigrants, gender dissidents, feminists, religious minorities, left-wing ‘radicals,’ the indigenous and the poor” to an increasing number of voters attracted by the politicians’ Christian-nationalist overtones.
For reporters, it is important to keep in view both the global nature of Christian nationalism and the networks that connect seemingly disparate movements in various localities across the world.
Reporting on Christian nationalism has risen over the past several years, with a noticeable “media storm” in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection in the U.S.
The following is a roundup of recent and relevant newswriting on the issue, including both local and global perspectives from places such as Montana and Minnesota, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., alongside reports and analysis from Brazil, Italy and Hungary:
- Read “How Montana Took a Hard Right Turn Toward Christian Nationalism,” from The New York Times on Jan. 11, 2023.
- Read “The threat of Christian nationalism has only grown since January 6,” from Baptist News Global on Jan. 10, 2023 (Commentary).
- Read “Faith leaders say report by January 6 Committee minimizes central role of Christian nationalism,” from the Milwaukee Independent on Jan. 8, 2023.
- Read “Who are the Christian nationalists? A taxonomy for the post-Jan. 6 world,” from Religion News Service on Jan. 6, 2023.
- Read “Why is a 16th-century tradition attracting activists on the Christian right?” from the University of Rochester News Center on Jan. 3, 2023.
- Read “How the Battle Over Christian Nationalism Often Starts With Homeschooling“ from Religion News Service on Dec. 23, 2022.
- Read “Why a Group of Christians Is Fighting the Growing Threat of Christian Nationalism,” from Time magazine on Dec. 30, 2022.
- Read “‘Alex Jones Did Nothing Wrong’: Meet the Christian Nationalist Behind ‘Pastors For Trump’” from Rolling Stone on Dec. 27, 2022.
- Read “Christian nationalism and the far right,” from MinnPost on Dec. 23, 2022 (Commentary).
- Read “Despite ample evidence, Christian nationalism mostly absent from final Jan. 6 report,” from Religion News Service on Dec. 23, 2022.
- Read “A Tale of Two Books, One Podcast, and the Contest over Christian Nationalism,” from Christianity Today on Dec. 20, 2022.
- Read “Christian nationalists — wanting to put God into US government,” from the BBC on Dec. 17, 2022.
- Read “The major role of Christian nationalism on Jan. 6,” from MSNBC on Dec. 14, 2022.
- Read “Some Georgia pastors push back against spread of Christian nationalism,” from the Longview News Journal on Dec. 14, 2022.
- Read “Outgoing Kansas Board of Education member decries GOP’s embrace of ‘Christian nationalism’” from the Kansas Reflector on Dec. 14, 2022.
- Read “Trump, Kanye West, and Nick Fuentes pushing antisemitism to the forefront of the GOP could pull the Christian nationalist movement apart,” from Business Insider on Dec. 12, 2022 (Commentary).
- Read “The Rise of Right-Wing Wokeism: Review: ‘The Case for Christian Nationalism’ by Stephen Wolfe,” from The Gospel Coalition on Nov. 28, 2022 (Commentary).
- Read “Despite Mastriano’s loss, don’t count out Christian nationalism,” from Religion News Service on Nov. 8, 2022.
- Read “Faith on the ballot: White Christian nationalism vs. Black Christian tradition,” from The Boston Globe on Nov. 4, 2022 (Commentary).
- Read “Russell Moore on Christian Nationalism,” from The New Yorker on Nov. 4, 2022.
- Read “Christofascism is everyone’s problem,” from the Texas Observer on Nov. 3, 2022 (Commentary).
- Read “Christian Nationalism Debates Expose Clashing Views of Power,” from Christianity Today on Oct. 31, 2022.
- Read “Most Republicans Support Declaring the United States a Christian Nation,” from Politico on Sept. 21, 2022.
- Read “Americans are growing more accepting of Christian nationalism,” from The Washington Post on Sept. 1, 2022.
- Read “‘Christian Nationalism’ Used to Be Taboo. Now It’s All the Rage.” from Slate on Aug. 5, 2022.
- Read “Orbán urges Christian nationalists in Europe and US to ‘unite forces’ at CPAC,” from The Guardian on Aug. 4, 2022.
- Read “Christian Nationalists Are Excited About What Comes Next,” from The New York Times on July 5, 2022 (Analysis).
- Read “How Christian nationalism drove the insurrection: A religious history of Jan. 6,” from Salon on Jan. 6, 2022.
- Read “The shared religious roots of twin insurrections in the U.S. and Brazil,” from The Washington Post on Jan. 18, 2023 (Analysis).
- Read “Christian Nationalism Invades Brazil,” from Word and Way on Jan. 10, 2023 (Commentary).
- Read “Christians Respond to Nationalists’ Call to Boycott Christmas in China,” from Christianity Today on Dec. 19, 2022.
- Read “Hungary’s Orban: Christian nationalists in Europe and US must unite to win elections,” from The National on Aug. 5, 2022.
- Read “In the Brazilian runoff, evangelical influencers flock to Bolsonaro,” from .Coda on Oct. 26, 2022.
- Listen to “Why White Nationalists Identify With A Russian Church — And Vladimir Putin,” from NPR on May 10, 2022.
- Read “The Christian nationalism behind Putin’s war,” from The Washington Post on April 19, 2022 (Analysis).
- Read “Hungarian Evangelicals Thank God for Viktor Orbán Victory,” from Christianity Today on April 18, 2022.
- Read “Putin’s religious vision underscores the danger of Christian nationalism,” from Sojourners on March 2, 2022 (Commentary).
- Read “How the Capitol Attacks Helped Spread Christian Nationalism in the Extreme Right,” from Religion News Service on Jan. 26, 2022.
- Read “Christian nationalism is thriving in Bolsonaro’s Brazil,” from The Christian Century on Nov. 18, 2021.
Experts and sources
Anthea Butler is an associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies and graduate chair of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She specializes in the history of Pentecostalism and is the author of White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America.
João Chaves is associate director for programming at the Hispanic Theological Initiative and assistant professor of evangelism and mission at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He has written on migration, evangelical history in the U.S. and Brazil, and on evangelicals’ relationship to politics in the Americas.
Christians Against Christian Nationalism is a large group of faith leaders concerned that Christian nationalism presents a persistent threat to both religious communities and democracy. Amanda Tyler of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty is lead organizer. The press contact is Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons.
Pamela Cooper-White is the Christiane Brooks Johnson Professor of Psychology & Religion at Union Theological Seminary at New York City. She is the author of The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church’s Response and Gender, Violence and Justice: Collected Essays on Violence Against Women.
Clayton Crockett is a professor in the department of philosophy and religion at the University of Central Arkansas and director of the interdisciplinary religious studies program there. He regularly teaches courses on exploring religion; philosophy of religion; religion, science and technology; and religion and psychology. He has authored or edited a number of books, including Religion, Politics and the Earth.
Miguel A. De La Torre teaches social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, where he directs the school’s Justice and Peace Institute. Issues he can discuss include religion’s effects on class/race/gender oppression, Santeria, Cuba and liberation theology. His numerous books include, as co-editor, Rethinking Latino(a) Religion and Identity and Handbook of Latina/o Theologies.
Angela Denker, a veteran journalist and Lutheran pastor, is author of Red State Christians: A Journey Into White Christian Nationalism and the Wreckage It Leaves Behind.
David Elcott is Henry and Marilyn Taub Professor of Practice in Public Service and Leadership and the director of the advocacy and political action specialization at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service. His work has focused on civic obligation, community building, and interfaith and ethnic activism. He is the author of Faith, Nationalism and the Future of Liberal Democracy.
John Fea is an American history professor at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. Fea writes often about the role of religious leaders in the Trump administration and is the author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.
Carolyn Gallaher is senior associate dean in the School of International Service at American University. Her research is on organized violence by nonstate actors and urban politics.
Michelle Goldberg is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times. She is also the author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, which discusses “dominion theology,” which links Christianity and political governance.
Philip Gorski is professor of sociology at Yale University. He is a comparative-historical sociologist with work on topics such as state formation, nationalism, revolution, economic development and secularization and with particular attention given to the interaction of religion and politics. He co-runs the Religion and Politics Colloquium at the Yale MacMillan Center and is co-author (with Samuel L. Perry) of The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy.
Robert P. Jones is CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, or PRRI.
Kristin Kobes Du Mez is a history and gender studies professor at Calvin University. She wrote Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.
Carly Machado is a professor of anthropology at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ). With Patrícia Birman, she coordinates the Distúrbio-UERJ Research Group (Devices, Urban Plots, Orders and Resistances).
Eric McDaniel is associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. He researches religion and politics, including Black religious organizations’ political involvement and what effect they have on Black political activity.
Brad Onishi is a social commentator, scholar and co-host of the Straight White American Jesus podcast, which ranks in the top 50 of politics shows on Apple’s podcast charts. His forthcoming book, Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism – And What Comes Next will be available January 2023.
Samuel L. Perry is associate professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma. He is an expert on conservative Christianity and American politics, race, sexuality and families. He is the author or co-author of numerous books, including Growing God’s Family, Addicted to Lust, Taking America Back for God and The Flag and The Cross.
Jeffrey W. Robbins is professor of religion and philosophy at Lebanon Valley College, where he also serves as director of the American studies program. He is a member of the board of directors and a research fellow of the Westar Institute, where he directs the ongoing academic seminar on “God and the Human Future,” and is an affiliated faculty member of the Global Center for Advanced Studies. He is the author or editor of nine books, including Radical Theology: A Vision for Change, and co-author of An Insurrectionist Manifesto: Four New Gospels for a Radical Politics.
Nilay Saiya is assistant professor of public policy and global affairs at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His research concerns the influence of religion on global politics. He is author of the book Weapon of Peace: How Religious Liberty Combats Terrorism.
Drew Strait is assistant professor of New Testament and Christian origins at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and an expert on how early Jewish and Christian communities negotiated political idolatry.
Matthew D. Taylor is a scholar at the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies, where he specializes in Muslim-Christian dialogue, evangelical and Pentecostal movements, religious politics in the U.S. and American Islam. Media inquiries should be directed to ICJS’ communications and marketing director, John Rivera.
Jemar Tisby is a historian who studies, writes and speaks on racism in the church. He is the author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.
Camila Vergara is a critical legal theorist, historian and journalist from Chile writing on the relation between inequality, corruption and domination, and how to institutionally empower common people to resist oppression from the powerful few. Currently, she is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the University of Cambridge.
Jon Ward is chief national correspondent at Yahoo!News, where he writes about politics, culture and religion. Ward is the author of Camelot’s End: Kennedy vs. Carter and the Fight That Broke the Democratic Party and Testimony: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Failed a Generation. Contact via publicist Kelly Hughes.
Andrew Whitehead is an associate professor of sociology and director of the Association of Religion Data Archives at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He researches the relationship between religion and other social forces, such as the family.
Janelle Wong is a core faculty member in the Asian American studies program at the University of Maryland and a professor of American studies.
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