As media attention on "Christian nationalism" looms large in American politics heading into the 2022 midterms, Christian scholars this week debated the definition of the term and whether the increased media focus is an attempt to intimidate Christians from sharing their values in the public square.
The Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University held a debate Thursday titled "Is Christian Nationalism a Threat to America?"
Luige DelPuerto, the editor of Colorado Politics in The Denver Gazette, moderated a discussion between Centennial Institute Director Jeff Hunt, whose organization hosts a prominent annual conservative summit, and Scott Wasserman, the president of the left-leaning think tank Bell Policy Center.
The debate comes as a new Pew Research poll released this week finds that 45% of Americans think the United States should be a "Christian nation," compared to 51% who don't believe the U.S. should be a "Christian nation."
While Americans may be divided on whether America should be a Christian nation, they hold differing opinions about what that phrase means.
While nearly a third of respondents (31%) stated that they don't know what Christian nationalism means, 34% of respondents and 48% of those who think the U.S. should be a Christian nation said Christian nationalism means the country is "guided by Christian beliefs/values."
Nearly a third of respondents who don't think the U.S. should be a Christain nation believe the term means the country is run by "Christian-based laws/governance," and 21% said Christian nationalism is defined by negative attributes like "bigotry, authoritarianism, white supremacy."
"I've got a lot of questions about what Christian nationalism is," Wasserman, who identifies as Jewish, said. "Over the past year or so, we have seen the emergence of politicians — notably Marjorie Taylor Greene as well as Congresswoman Lauren Boebert — speak very overtly about this concept of Christian nationalism. ... It seems to me there has been an emergence of Christain nationalism in this country."
"It seems to me that for a long time, its advocates have not wanted to talk about it in the public realm. But I think that we are at a point in our country where we need to have a candid conversation about it," he added. "We can't have a democracy if we can't intellectually trade our thoughts and be honest about what we really believe."
What is Christian nationalism?
Hunt offered his take on the definition of Christian nationalism through the "lens" of the media, saying there isn't a "good definition" because different news outlets have different definitions.
He criticized a recent Denver Post article that he said tried to define the term by providing a "collaboration of scary mischaracterization of conservative policies" and put an "umbrella over it and called it Christian nationalism."
The article addressed remarks from Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., suggesting that the United States has a divine role in the world and calling on the nation to "glorify God."
The article also featured commentary from several religious, political and social experts who disagreed with the freshman congresswoman's statement to The Denver Post, assuring that she was not a Christian nationalist.
Citing the Sept. 14 article titled "Lauren Boebert is part of a dangerous religious movement that threatens democracy," Hunt noted that the publication stated that Boebert has pursued a "pattern of pushing for a religious takeover of America, spreading falsehoods about the 2020 presidential election and warning of an impending judgment day," which the article cites "political and social experts" to say "amounts to Christian nationalism."
"At their core, Christian nationalists believe that America holds a unique and divinely ordained purpose," the article stated. "Christian nationalists also hold a strong sense of moral traditionalism, express comfort with authoritarian control … and embrace strong ethno-racial boundaries."
Hunt also stated that the article claims Christian nationalism is "infiltrating virtually every level of American government and its judiciary" and a "dog whistle for violence."
"Then they say, this is not compatible with democracy, and they top it all off at the end of the article by connecting it with Vladimir Putin," Hunt said. "This is like if you were creating a scary movie right around the holiday season. ... It was just kind of crazy and outlandish."
Hunt also criticized the book Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States by University of Oklahoma Professor Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
"Here is their definition: 'It's a fusion of Christianity with American civic life that includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity, along with the divine sanction of authoritarian control and militarism,'" Hunt recited.
"So they basically create this big scary boogie man, slapped Christian nationalism on it, and then, in the case of the Denver Post, basically say every conservative out there is a Christian nationalist," Hunt said. "Seriously, they say that Ron DeSantis, Rick Scott, Kari Lake, all of them are Christian nationalists. It is just so over the top, and they try to attach it to every conservative out there that holds historically conservative positions that it's just kind of obscene."
Hunt simply defined a Christian nationalist as one who wants a "Christian nation-state" or a Christian theocracy.
"You have religious states all over the world. You have Islamic nation-states, you have Jewish nation-states, and you have Christian nation-states. England is a Christian nation-state. The queen was the head of the Church of England. So there are different levels of connection. A Christian nationalist, properly defined from my perspective, is someone that wants America to be a Christian nation-state."
"I don't think anyone's explicitly calling for America to be a Christian nation-state," he continued.
"I think what Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert are often responding to is this kind of characterization that if you hold conservative values, you are somehow a Christian nationalist. That is not the case."
Hunt outlined some characteristics of a "Christian nation-state" as the "declaration of an official church" in the U.S. and the "repeal of Article VI protections" that ban religious tests for public office holders. He said there lack of appetite for making either of those major changes at this time.
Wasserman defended The Denver Post, saying the outlet was just reacting to comments that political leaders in our country are now saying very overtly.
"I really can't get over Congresswoman Boebert's statement that the Church is supposed to direct the government," Wasserman said.
He read aloud from a document called National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles, a document drafted by thought leaders like Rod Dreher, Peter Thiel, Yoram Hazony and others. Wasserman said that it is becoming apparent that there is a "body of thought coming together" and found a section on religion to be "of interest."
The document declares: "Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private."
"At the same time, Jews and other religious minorities are to be protected in the observance of their own traditions in the free governance of their communal institutions, and in all matters pertaining to the rearing and education of their children," the document added. "Adult individuals should be protected from religious and ideological coercion in their private lives and in their homes."
Wasserman asked Hunt if he believes in the statement, "where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision."
"Christians have been debating how the Church interacts with the state for a long time. I am going back to kind of Calvinist traditions. ... A lot of this language seems scary if you haven't been educated in the role that the Church has debated over these for a long time," Hunt responded.
"We have had a history of people getting in control, one particular denomination and persecuting others. You can say America was founded because they wanted to get away from it."
'A reaction to neo-Marxism'
Hunt believes that the actions that critics deride as Christian nationalism are "a reaction to neo-Marxism, which is seeking to remove any perspective of Christianity from the public square so that they can have total control of the policies that are being made."
Hunt said Boebert's remarks also proclaimed that "the government should not control the Church."
Reiterating his belief that there is no push to create a Christian nation-state, Hunt insisted that "what they're arguing for is the right and the ability to express their Christian principles in the public square in an effort to convince the systems that are set up, that already exist, to reflect their values."
Wasserman rejected Hunt's analysis, labeling what Hunt identified as "neo-Marxism" as "separatist secularism" and an "evolution of thought" informed by "an awakening in this country to the legacy of racism" that amounts to "a critique of what the dominant culture has been."
Wasserman said that even though he is Jewish, he believes religion is a "horrible formula for political governance."
"I am also a historian. If I look back at the last few centuries, I see a lot of bloodshed, and I see a lot of bloodshed around ecumenical questions that I believe have no role in governance," he said. "I think this is a bedrock value in America and has taken different forms."
"We have to be honest, too, as people who are secularly inclined in this nation that you can drive a Mack truck between the Establishment Clause and the Free Expression clause," Wasserman continued. "But nevertheless, this country has never had religion in the driver's seat. If we are turning the page and if there is indeed a Christian nationalist movement in this country, I would like to learn about it and understand what impact it is going to have on my family, my community, and my many friends and neighbors who do not identify as Christians."
Hunt elaborated on his concerns about "neo-Marxism," identifying the prosecution of Christian baker Jack Phillips for refusing to bake a same-sex wedding cake and the hostility Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett faced over her religious views in what he called a "new secularism religious test" that public office holders find themselves subject to.
He maintained that "neo-Marxism" is "placing people in categories" that are "competing against each other" in the form of "oppressors" and "the oppressed."
"We put people in categories based upon their race. We put people in categories based upon their gender. We put people in categories based upon their sexualities. We put people in categories based upon their economics," Hunt said. "And now we've created a system where all these groups are fighting against each other, and if you are a white male Evangelical, you are part of the most oppressive category, and therefore, you must be shut down in every capacity that you can."
Hunt attributed Boebert's comments as a reaction to the "pushout of religion from the public square because [of the view that] it is an oppressive regime that needs to be silenced."
"There is not a threat of Christian nationalism in this country," Hunt concluded. "There is not an effort, either by the elected officials or major conservatives, to try to explicitly align this country through law with Christianity, to prevent other people of faith from being able to hold office."
Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: email@example.com