Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene says it’s a rebranding that Republicans should embrace. The media have rushed to equate it with racism and violence. And gleeful Democrats can’t wait to use it as a club to bash Republican candidates with in the fall.
It’s the term “Christian nationalism,” the buzziest political label of the moment, and it’s being used to describe the rise of conservative and unabashedly religious MAGA-style candidates and the supporters who are sweeping them to victory in state and local races across the country.
For many on the left and among their allies in the press, the emergence of a new generation of pro-Jesus, anti-woke Republicans is cause for alarm. The movement is “potentially violent” and “insidious,” said CNN producer John Blake. “A threat to our democracy,” wrote MSNBC’s Dean Obeidallah.
“Christian nationalism” has no commonly accepted definition. It is an amorphous term for God-infused populism that both sides of the political divide are trying to use to their advantage.
For conservatives such as Mrs. Greene, the outspoken first-term congresswoman from Georgia, being a Christian nationalist is nothing for which to apologize.
“[Republicans] need to be the party of nationalism, and I’m a Christian, and I say it proudly: We should be Christian nationalists,” she said in a recent interview.
She is not alone in calling for a more outspoken, Trump-inspired mashup of God and country.
Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, another first-term Republican, told followers in June, “The church is supposed to direct the government, the government is not supposed to direct the church. … I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk.”
The energy of engaged evangelical voters is being credited — along with the power of former President Donald Trump‘s endorsement — for the success of several Republicans who will appear on ballots in November’s midterm elections. They include Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano and Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker.
Both have put faith front and center in their campaigns, and critics have accused Mr. Mastriano and Mr. Walker of “resurgent Christian nationalism” for invoking God’s blessing on their politics.
“Christian nationalists are an existential threat to the republic,” Andrew L. Seidel, vice president of strategic communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in an email. “They’re losing demographically, so they’re raging against the dying of their privilege.”
Democrats are betting that Christian nationalism will scare more voters in November than it attracts — especially with polls showing that religious observance among Americans is sliding. Gallup reported in June that 81% of Americans say they believe in God, down 6 percentage points from 2017 and 11 points from 2011.
“I can say it is absolutely believable that a Christian nationalist surge in some congregations would drive away those who have different views. Trumpism, in general, was very divisive in many church circles,” said Christian Smith, a University of Notre Dame sociologist who studies trends of religious disaffiliation among young people.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst at Religion News Service, said it’s important to him as a Catholic for religion to influence politics — as long as the government doesn’t impose Christianity on others.
“Just because the nation is statistically a Christian majority doesn’t mean the government should be Christian,” Father Reese said. “Most of the founding fathers were Christian, but they also recognized coming from England how divisive it was when one branch of Christianity took over the government to impose their values on the population.”
Former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a conservative Minnesota Republican who ran for president in 2012, said liberals have hyped the issue as a “political project” to depress Republican turnout in November.
“Christian nationalism is progressive propaganda,” Ms. Bachmann, dean of the school of government at Regent University in Virginia, said in an email. “Progressives seek to divide the Christian vote because they know Christians are highly motivated to vote for candidates who campaign on biblical issues.”
Some conservative evangelicals agree. Former Texas state Rep. Rick Green, a national speaker and radio host for the group WallBuilders, said it’s a myth to suggest America’s Founding Fathers wanted to keep religious values out of politics.
“Are not ‘political issues’ just the issues we all face every day, and do we not want teaching from our pastors, priests, rabbis and imams on how to apply our particular faith? If someone leaves their place of worship because the leader had the nerve to teach something relevant, they are most likely wanting to follow the self, not the faith,” Mr. Green said.
Even some religious conservatives have bristled at politicians like Mrs. Greene who identify themselves as Christian nationalists. They say it fuels Democratic Party efforts to stick the label on all Republicans — including Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears — who talk openly about Christianity.
“To my mind, the term should be avoided because it has little objective meaning,” said Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative Protestant think tank. “Secularists see it behind any Christian political witness or any reference to God.”
Protestant journalist Marvin Olasky, a Trump critic whose idea of “compassionate conservatism” inspired President George W. Bush to create the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 2001, said the language turns off many sincere Christians.
“The Constitution is a brilliant document and our country has had many blessings, but America is not ancient Israel and we’re not God’s chosen people any more than other nationalities are,” Mr. Olasky said in an email.
Analysts warn that public perception of recent Supreme Court decisions as a “religious takeover” could hurt Republican candidates who embrace Christian nationalism. The high court ruled last term in favor of Washington state public high school football coach Joe Kennedy’s right to pray on the field after games and overturned Roe v. Wade’s constitutional right to abortion.
Six of the court’s nine justices — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Sonia Sotomayor, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — are Catholic. Neil M. Gorsuch was raised Catholic but attends Episcopalian services.
All but Justice Sotomayor voted to support evangelical Christian views on those issues.
David Lane, a California-based evangelical leader who founded the conservative American Renewal Project, said it would be a mistake to interpret recent Trump-infused politics as a Christian coup.
“No Christian is calling for a theocracy in America,” he said in an email. “The Christian nationalism label is just the latest attack by religious secularists to remove American Christendom from the public square in favor of their system of beliefs, termed secularism.”