Is ‘Christian Nationalism’ Really a Problem?

ANALYSIS: The greater danger, experts warn, isn’t of an impending ‘Christian nationalist’ takeover, but that the term is being used to discredit Christian participation in the public square.

American Flag waving in front of church steeple.
American Flag waving in front of church steeple. (photo: Amanda Wayne / Shutterstock)

Do you believe that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? If so, prepare to be labeled a “Christian nationalist.”

At least that was a takeaway of a recent essay in Politico, which equated holding views shared by the American Founders with being part of a marginal movement of evangelical Protestants intent on imposing elements of religious rule on the United States.

Prominent Catholics sharply criticized the article, and one of its authors’ subsequent TV appearance, for implying that believing in God-given rights, or appealing to the natural law in policy debates, makes one a Christian nationalist.

“Saying that our rights — and dignity and sanctity — come from God isn’t spooky ‘Christian Nationalism,’” wrote Ryan Anderson, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative Washington think tank. “And it would be odd — indeed unjust — to say that all non-religious worldviews have a seat at the table, while religious ones don’t.”

But experts expect these kinds of characterizations to continue — if not increase — in the months leading up to November’s presidential election. In fact, the Politico piece is part of a larger mainstream-media narrative that Christian nationalism will be injected into American law and governance if Donald Trump is elected to a second term in the Oval Office.

“If they are empowered by this November’s election, they will force every American to live under Christo-fascist governance and laws drawn from their narrow interpretation of the Bible,” wrote Andra Watkins in one instance of this kind of argument. “Democracy will be replaced with theocracy.”

Catholic academics and commentators don’t deny that Christian nationalism is a view held by some on the political right, particularly at local levels in red states. But they argue that the phenomenon is not as politically potent as it is made out to be by the media, which indiscriminately lump believers advocating for policies consistent with their faith together with those arguing for America to be governed by explicitly religious laws.

“I think the media are fearmongering,” Mary Imparato, chairwoman of the politics department at Belmont Abbey College, told the Register, adding that the narrative portrays Christianity as “some hostile or foreign force in American life, when, in fact, it has deeper roots in our past than the secularism the left-leaning mainstream media generally pushes.”

The greater danger, these experts warn, isn’t of an impending “Christian nationalist” takeover, but that the term is being used to discredit Christian participation in the public square, particularly when it comes to advocating for positions that run afoul of liberal priorities.

“The media is just reflecting the attempt by progressives to silence faithful Catholics and other Christians on the non-negotiable issues of the sanctity of life from conception until natural death and marriage between one man and one woman,” said Anne Hendershott, director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. She noted that protecting the unborn and marriage as between a man and a woman isn’t just consistent with Catholic teaching, but with the natural law.

And others contend the broad brush with which Christian nationalism critics paint is likely to exacerbate an already-fractured country.

“It’s feeding into a divisiveness that’s come to mark American society and politics,” said Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, a legal analyst for EWTN News who leads the D.C.-based Conscience Project. “Americans have to engage in tough conversations without devolving into calling people ‘Christian nationalists’ or maligning them with labels instead of engaging them with ideas.”

‘Disturbing and Frankly Dangerous’

The Politico piece, entitled “Trump Allies Prepare to Infuse ‘Christian Nationalism’ in Second Administration,” serves as a case study of these concerns.

In the article, the belief that “freedom is defined by God, not man” is presented as the defining mark of Christian nationalism, along with the view America “was founded as a Christian nation and that Christian values should be prioritized throughout government and public life.”

The authors, Heidi Przybyla and Alexander Ward, even factored belief in the natural law, a framework for determining what’s best for persons by appealing to human nature that was developed by the likes of the non-Christian philosopher Aristotle, into their assessment of Christian nationalism.

While Pope Francis has recently highlighted the natural law as an important framework for pluralistic societies, given its accessibility to all people, the Politico piece described it as sectarian belief — a “core pillar of Catholicism” — that is used to restrict abortion and sexual liberties.

Przybyla further fanned the flames in a subsequent MSNBC appearance, stating that what unites Christian nationalists “is that they believe that our rights as Americans and as all human beings do not come from any earthly authority. They don’t come from Congress, from the Supreme Court; they come from God.”

Bishop Robert Barron, founder of the Catholic media apostolate Word on Fire, described Przybyla’s broad critique as “one of the most disturbing and frankly dangerous things I’ve ever seen in a political conversation.”

“The basic problem is that if [rights] come from the government, or Congress, or the Supreme Court, they can be taken away by those same people. This is opening the door to totalitarianism,” said the bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, who described the episode as “further evidence of this extreme hostility of the left toward religion.”

In his response, EPPC’s Anderson added that it was hypocritical of Przybyla to be fine with appeals to the natural law and religion when they were used by people like Martin Luther King Jr. to advance social-justice causes but hold them as inadmissible “when they support causes Przybyla opposes.”

Przybyla wrote a follow-up piece shortly after the MSNBC segment aired. Although she still maintained that appeals to the natural law are “in the eye of the beholder,” and therefore essentially relativistic, she apologized for her “clumsy words” used in defining Christian nationalism.

Picciotti-Bayer welcomed the apology, but told the Register that these kinds of mistakes are the product of “intellectual laziness from people on the progressive left who aren’t willing to have a full conversation on what leads to human flourishing” and “misunderstand both American democracy and the role of people of faith in the public square.”

David Deavel, a theologian at the University of St. Thomas in Houston and frequent political commentator, described the use of “Christian nationalism” as a blanket pejorative that is the latest in a long line of “accusations by the left against anybody who dares bring their Christianity to bear on public life.” He noted that warnings about theocracy were also at a fever pitch in the early 2000s during the Bush administration.

“Generally speaking, this is part of a continuing attack on Christians being involved in politics at all or bringing any sort of Christian standpoint to bear,” Deavel told the Register.

Which ‘Christian Nationalism’?

Przybyla’s mistake might also be attributable to widely divergent understandings of what exactly Christian nationalism is.

In a recent New York Times column, Ross Douthat attempted to address the confusion by laying out four possible definitions of Christian nationalism, ranging from religious law enforced by the government to the belief that American ideals make the most sense in light of Christian principles, to the extent that pluralism allows.

But the most widespread use of “Christian nationalism,” in his opinion? “Any kind of Christian politics that liberals find disagreeable or distasteful.”

This approach seems evident in recent mainstream pieces on the topic. For instance, Texas Monthly described Catholic Gov. Greg Abbot as a Christian nationalist solely on the basis of his promotion of school choice and his severe determent of immigration.

Project 2025, a conservative policy game plan being organized by the Heritage Foundation in the event of a Republican win in November, has received similar treatment.

“Christian nationalism” doesn’t appear in its documents, but media accounts have attempted to apply the label by attempting to link the project to fringe groups or claiming that its proposals are rife with “Christo-fascist” language only detectable to those familiar with the movement.

James Patterson, a political theorist at Ave Maria University, told the Register that Christian nationalism, strictly speaking, refers to the recovery of “magisterial Protestantism,” an early Reformation view that holds that a nation must be led by “a strong Christian leader” who effectively governs via interpretation and application of biblical precepts.

This understanding of Christian nationalism is championed by, for instance, the Davenant Institute and more online and combative Protestant figures like Stephen Wolfe and William Wolfe (no relation).

Patterson contrasted this specific definition of Christian nationalism with the much broader position “that our rights come from God and not the government,” which he called the “Christian republican principle” and said was a founding basis of the American government.

In Patterson’s assessment, the Politico piece attributed the most extreme definition of Christian nationalism to general Christian advocacy in the public square.

Part of the confusion, Patterson suggests, is that some Christians — like Russ Vought, head of the Center for Renewing America and the main subject of the Politico piece — are making the same conflation, ascribing “Christian nationalism” to their views when they don’t actually qualify.

But Patterson also suggested that the Politico authors either intentionally conflated different understandings of Christian nationalism or are “genuinely scandalized by the idea that God exists and made us in his image.”

“If the former, that is awfully cynical. If the latter, the Church has much work to do.”

A ‘Natural Conversation’

Christian nationalism has certainly had a lot of ink spilled about it in recent years, with a slew of books on the topic — some advocating for it, others warning about it — published since 2020. Some national politicians, such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., have even embraced the term.

But some experts don’t think that an increase in Christian nationalist views at the political margins suggests that the movement is poised for a national takeover.

“If more radical figures have gained some increased influence, that’s mostly because of chaos and disillusionment and decline within Christianity writ large,” wrote Douthat, adding that “the foundation for Christian politics of any kind, radical or moderate,” is weaker today than in previous decades.

The political scientist and Baptist pastor Ryan Burge has cited polling data as evidence that Christian nationalism “has retreated” in recent years. For instance, support for the federal government declaring “the United States a Christian nation” dropped from 31% to 26% among the general population from 2007 and 2021, even falling among evangelicals.

Picciotti-Bayer described Christian nationalism — as well as a similar movement in Catholicism called integralism, which holds that civil authority should be subordinate to the Catholic Church — as “a very small group of people, not significant enough to do much,” who are responding to the country’s current crisis with what she says is the equivalent of calling mom for help.

“They want the Church to step in and almost assume responsibility of the government,” she said, arguing that this approach ends up “lowering the Church from a supernatural mission to a temporal one.”

But Deavel, who doesn’t identify as a Christian nationalist and said integralism poses “dangers” for the Church, said that believers revisiting the relationship between religion and civil society is a “natural conversation” to be having right now, “because we really don’t have, in any sense, a thoroughly Christian culture anymore.”

In what he describes as the “Fighting Irish effect,” he says that more Christians may be embracing the “Christian nationalist” label precisely because they’re being unfairly criticized as such by the media, similar to how the University of Notre Dame’s football team took what was initially a slur and began to use it as their nickname.

He also expects that if accusations of Christian nationalism continue to be leveled indiscriminately, it will likely “radicalize engagement.”

“If you have people who say that any single drip of religious ideas taints the whole thing, I don’t know where that can go, except more division and more people on the religious side saying, ‘Okay, fine, if one drop makes it, then I’m just going to go full on, and we’re going to try to instantiate as much as we can.’”