In the days before President Biden addressed the nation to commemorate the violent attack on the US Capitol by conservative rioters, commentators speculated on the President’s likely message. Would he stick to memorializing the dead and affirming a commitment to democracy, or point directly at the cause?
In the end, Biden opted for direct, offering strong criticism of former President Trump and the conservatives who tried to overthrow an elected government both through subterfuge and by force.
When he said that we are all in a fight over “the soul of the nation,” he couldn’t have been more accurate. There is a secular, multicultural vision for America that respects rule of law and political rights, and a Christian nationalist vision for America where white Christians dominate the political, economic, and social orders. On January 6th, it was Christian nationalists playing a pivotal role in drumming up support to attack democracy. White Christian America feels angry and aggrieved at the country’s changing political and cultural environment, which has led to increased support for more authoritarian politics.
Fundamentally, democracy is allowing all citizens to participate in a country’s political process. What separates democracy from other forms of government is its openness. In democratic systems, people from all groups and walks of life have the ability to pursue their own interests by voting in elections and participating in civil society. Thus democracies are pluralist when they are working properly, and no one group completely dominates the process or is allowed to make arbitrary decisions. Most important of all, democracies protect the political rights of ethnic and religious minorities and allow them to participate in the system.
For most of its history, the United States would not fit this definition of democracy. Women only gained suffrage a century ago, and Black people received full voting rights in the mid-1960s. This makes genuine democracy in America a fairly recent phenomenon, one that has led to an era of monumental social and cultural changes. As more Americans have gained political rights, education levels have increased. And as education has risen, religiosity has fallen. In 2020, fewer than half of Americans belonged to a place of worship. This has occurred in parallel with major demographic changes: Pew Research found that the share of the population that identifies as white has fallen from 80% in 1980 to 58% in 2020. These social and cultural changes are the direct result of formerly excluded groups being able to participate in the political process. But these changes also are a direct threat to the political dominance of white Christians, who have responded bitterly to how America is moving away from their ideal vision.
This disconnect between the distorted vision of America held by many white Christians and the reality on the ground has led to growth in Christian nationalism. Christian nationalists believe that America is a fundamentally Christian nation, and that Christians should be making the political decisions. They believe that the nation has culturally lost its way and must return to its religious roots. Because Christian nationalism often overlaps with white nationalism, the movement is associated with racial and ethnic prejudice.
“For more than two decades, I’ve studied the attitudes of religiously affiliated Americans across the country,” says Robert P. Jones, founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. “And year over year, in question after question in public opinion polls, a clear pattern has emerged: White Christians are consistently more likely than whites who are religiously unaffiliated to deny the existence of structural racism.”
Christian nationalists are similar to other religious extremist groups around the world, in that they are willing to use violence to achieve their political goals. The January 6th insurrection was an example of how far Christian nationalists are willing to go in order to get their way, and there’s a lot of reasons to believe that attack was just the beginning.
This all brings us to the question of whether Christian nationalism and democracy are fundamentally compatible.
Democracy demands that all participants respect the rights and beliefs of others. It demands that all citizens’ votes count equally. And our system is specifically designed for the separation of church and state. If our democracy is functioning properly, Christians will one be group among many, electing representatives and participating in civil society, competing for power by playing by the rules. But Christian nationalists believe that system is illegitimate because it does not assure them achievement of their political goals.
Christian nationalists are increasingly attracted to authoritarianism, a political system where one small group makes the political decisions, and the rest of society is shut out. Not all authoritarian systems are hyper-violent, but they don’t allow individuals to fully pursue their interests and repress the political interests of specific groups. In a Christian nationalist vision of America, religious minorities, ethnic minorities, and other marginalized groups will have fewer political rights and won’t be fully able to participate. Christians would make the political decisions, they would control the social order, and they would dominate the culture. Enforcing this kind of system would be akin to erasing generations of social and cultural progress in the United States. And it would mean reverting back to a political system of a century ago, where women and racial minorities were not full participants in American democracy.
This also explains Christian nationalists’ support for Donald Trump, who has embraced authoritarianism and broken democratic norms. Trump has unapologetically fought against liberals who advocate for secularism and multiculturalism, which has turned him into something of a cult figure for cultural conservatives. Although Trump is not pious and has consistently flouted Christian moral values, Christians view Trump as someone who is fighting for their vision of America. The Trump vision of America and the Christian nationalist ideal are functionally the same, even if Trump himself is not religious. Their goal is to produce a more authoritarian political system with fewer constraints for White Christians but more constraints for everyone else.
A true American democracy that provides political rights for all citizens is simply not compatible with the Christian nationalist vision. Christian nationalists seek to dominate American political institutions and do away with pluralism. They believe that America should be a fundamentally Christian nation forever. They are upset with immigration from Latin America, from Asia, from the Caribbean, from Africa. They are upset with the secularization of education, and how Hollywood has rejected the Christian system of morality. Christians should absolutely have a place in America, but only as one group of many. Not as the dominant decision-makers that rule over everyone else. As Americans, we have to reject violence and authoritarianism and recommit to pursuing democratic ideals and pluralism. Ideas should have to compete in the political arena. Democracy is still under attack, and we need to do everything we can to fight to keep it.