White Evangelicals Have a Complicated Relationship with Christian Nationalism

In the mid-2000s, it was fashionable among journalists and academics to worry that America was on the verge of becoming a theocracy. Conservative white evangelicals had fueled the election of George W. Bush and helped turn Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ into a box-office smash. They seemed poised for renewed political and cultural dominance. And so books and articles poured forth warnings about the peculiar dangers of “Dominionism,” “Christian Reconstructionism,” and various other movements conspiring to impose Christian beliefs on an unsuspecting populace.

This narrative came crashing down with the election of Barack Obama. Almost overnight, fears of America descending into a theocracy evaporated. Pundits began forecasting the death of the Religious Right, and the same evangelicals who had helped propel Bush to power spent the next eight years playing defense. More and more, they saw themselves not as ascendant governing partners but as targets of a crusading secularism.

And then Donald Trump broke everything. His surprising election, enabled in part by white evangelical support, reawakened fears that religious conservatives would mobilize underneath a theocratic banner. Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which imagines a fundamentalist dystopia where women are forced to breed, enjoyed a second life repurposed as a Trump-era cautionary tale (and a hit Hulu series).

Yet the idea of America descending into a genuine theocracy lacked the same surface plausibility it had during the Bush years. Though white evangelicals enthusiastically carried Trump into the White House, his lack of personal piety made him an unlikely candidate to preside over a thoroughly Christianized commonwealth. Nor, by and large, did his evangelical supporters mistake him for a godly statesman. Rather than King David, Trump was Cyrus, the pagan Persian emperor who, after conquering Babylon, allowed the Israelite captives to resettle in their homeland and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

Still, with Trump in office, the political fortunes of religious conservatives appeared to improve. This set the stage for a new journalistic and academic preoccupation: uncovering why white evangelicals flocked so fervently to Trump. The books and articles that typify this genre still feature concerns about conservative Christians manipulating the levers of power. But with the specter of full-dress theocracy having dimmed—and with Trump styling himself more as a champion of American greatness than a vindicator of the faith—attention has shifted to a distinct but overlapping phenomenon: Christian nationalism.

Privilege and Power

Much like nationalism itself, Christian nationalism can be tricky to define, especially since the term can be employed in either a descriptive or pejorative manner. As a political ideology, it touches on deep currents of religious, national, and even racial or ethnic identity. Yet it’s difficult to set precise boundaries, since those who sympathize with this ideology differ in their levels of support for its signature causes. Cast the definitional net too narrowly, and you might miss an important matrix of shared goals and antagonisms. Cast it too widely, and you might lump together people who have no business standing shoulder to shoulder.

Difficulties like these are on display in three new books that take the measure of Christian nationalism from various angles. In different ways, these books portray a movement committed to preserving its own privilege and power, favoring the interests of native-born white people over immigrants and ethnic minorities, and using legal authority to impose a Christianized moral order. The books are not uniformly persuasive. But each, in its own way, is worth reading and pondering.

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Source: Christianity Today