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A new survey out today from the Pew Research Center finds that nearly half of all Americans, 45%, believe we ought to live in a “Christian Nation.” They disagree, however, on what that means in practice, and most Americans still believe church and state should remain separate.

The phrase “Christian nation” is not meant to be aspirational. As sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry described in their book Taking America Back for God (affiliate link), Christian nationalism basically represents a fusion of conservative Christianity with civic life. It’s not quite a theocracy, but if conservative Christians had their way, it’d be a distinction without a difference.

The phrase suggests we were founded as a (conservative) Christian country—we were not—and that we should be guided by (conservative) Christian principles. It’s not about Jesus. It’s about pushing right-wing beliefs on everybody in the country with regards to LGBTQ rights, gender roles, abortion access, who “counts” as an American, and control of public institutions like schools and government.

Christian nationalists have become far more prominent in recent years, especially since the January 6, 2021 insurrection attempt to the point where some of its biggest proponents use the phrase as a badge of honor. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has even said, “I’m a Christian, and I say it proudly: We should be Christian nationalists.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has urged Republicans to wear the “full armor of God” as they try to defeat Democrats in the upcoming elections.

Meanwhile, the other side is sounding the alarm. Earlier this year, a handful of scholars and activists met with members of the Congressional Freethought Caucus to go over their report on the connection between Christian nationalism and the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“I think the proof points about just how central Christian nationalism — we should call it white Christian nationalism — was to the planning and the execution of the insurrection is really undeniable,” [Rep. Jared] Huffman told Religion News Service in an interview.

With all that in mind, what do Americans feel about the phrase? The bottom line is that too many Americans don’t seem to understand the threat posed by Christian nationalists.

The Pew Research Center’s survey asked Americans what they felt about the term “Christian nation” without defining it for them. Because of that, the results are all over the place.

You can see there that 60% of Americans falsely believe we were originally intended to be a “Christian nation,” that 45% of Americans say we should be one, and 33% of Americans say we currently are one.

And yet the other responses don’t quite match up with any of those results. Should Supreme Court members rely on their faith when deciding cases? An astonishing 83% of Americans say no. (They are correct.) Similarly, 77% of Americans don’t want churches (and other houses of worship) endorsing political candidates.

Even among the 45% of Americans who believe we should be a “Christian nation,” the views are not monolithic.

Those people on the left side there (dark blue) want a theocracy. But the rest of them don’t want to go that far when it comes to establishing an official religion, pushing their religious views on everyone else, or blending church and state.

To put that another way, living in a Christian country sounds pretty good to a lot of Americans because they treat “Christian” as synonymous with “good.” Yet they overwhelmingly reject what that looks like in practice, at least based on the warped fantasies of actual Christian nationalists.

Here’s how Pew’s researchers parsed that:

While some people who say the U.S. should be a Christian nation define the concept as one where a nation’s laws are based on Christian tenets and the nation’s leaders are Christian, it is much more common for people in this category to see a Christian nation as one where people are more broadly guided by Christian values or a belief in God, even if its laws are not explicitly Christian and its leaders can have a variety of faiths or no faith at all. Some people who say the U.S. should be a Christian nation are thinking about the religious makeup of the population; to them, a Christian nation is a country where most people are Christians. Others are simply envisioning a place where people treat each other well and have good morals.

Of course, the Christians pushing for Christian nationalism would be more accurately described as bigots, racists, anti-feminists, intolerant, and the sort of people you don’t invite to Thanksgiving dinner. (One survey respondent described a “Christian nation” as a “White Christian ethno-state”… which deserves bonus points for bluntness and accuracy.)

Here’s another silver lining to these results. While nearly half of all Americans said we should live in a “Christian nation,” a lot of Americans have no clue what “Christian nationalism” is. They like the idea of living in a nation guided by (their interpretation of) Christian principles, but many of them aren’t familiar with the more pointed phrase.

More than half of Americans (54%) have never heard the term at all. Only 14% of Americans really know anything about it. And of the people who have ever heard the phrase at all, the ones with an opinion on it are against it.

That means there’s a tremendous opportunity to educate people on what Christian nationalism is, why it’s bad for the country, and what all of us stand to lose if Christian nationalists acquire even more power than they already have.

Andrew Seidel, whose latest book American Crusade: How the Supreme Court Is Weaponizing Religious Freedom (affiliate link) covers the consequences of Christian nationalism, is alarmed by the survey’s findings but reminds us of why secularism is worth defending:

The “wall of separation between state and church” is an American original. It is an American invention. We should be proud of and defend that contribution to human rights. And we should challenge those who would undermine it with myths, lies, and disinformation about America being founded as a Christian nation.

Shielding our shared laws from religious influence and capture allows Americans to come together as equals to build a stronger democracy. Democracy, equality, and freedom all depend on the separation of church and state—and the separation of church and state in turn enables those values.

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.