What Is Christian Nationalism, Exactly?

If you’re alarmed by the rise of Christian nationalism, the single worst thing you can do is define it too broadly. If you define it too broadly, then you’re telling millions of ordinary churchgoing citizens that the importation of their religious values into the public square somehow places them in the same camp or on the same side as actual Christian supremacists, the illiberal authoritarians who want to remake America in their own fundamentalist image.

Enter the new feature-length documentary “God and Country,” which examines the role of Christian nationalism in American politics. Even before I knew that Rob Reiner (the director of “A Few Good Men”) was involved in the project, I agreed to be interviewed by the filmmakers for two key reasons: First, I wanted to make sure that I could offer a sensible definition of Christian nationalism, one that didn’t cast aspersions on Christians simply for bringing their values into the public square. And second, I wanted to outline exactly why actual Christian nationalism presents a real danger to our Constitution.

To understand what Christian nationalism is, it’s important to understand what it is not. It is not Christian nationalism if a person’s political values are shaped by the individual’s Christian faith. In fact, many of America’s most important social movements have been infused with Christian theology and Christian activism. Many of our nation’s abolitionists thundered their condemnations of slavery from Northern pulpits. The civil rights movement wasn’t exclusively Christian by any means, but it was pervasively Christian — Martin Luther King Jr. was, of course, a Baptist minister.

Anyone may disagree with Christian arguments around civil rights, immigration, abortion, religious liberty or any other point of political conflict. Christians disagree with one another on these topics all the time, but it is no more illegitimate or dangerous for a believer to bring her worldview into a public debate than it is for a secular person to bring his own secular moral reasoning into politics. In fact, I have learned from faiths other than my own, and our public square would be impoverished without access to the thoughts and ideas of Americans of faith.

The problem with Christian nationalism isn’t with Christian participation in politics but rather the belief that there should be Christian primacy in politics and law. It can manifest itself through ideology, identity and emotion. And if it were to take hold, it would both upend our Constitution and fracture our society.

The sociologists Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead 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.” The author and pastor Matthew McCullough defines Christian nationalism as “an understanding of American identity and significance held by Christians wherein the nation is a central actor in the world-historical purposes of the Christian God.” Both definitions are excellent, but what does ideological Christian nationalism look like in practice?

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