In 1980, the Christian fundamentalist Jerry Falwell, Sr. gave a sermon to the church he founded. The sermon was fiery, and Falwell condemned his political opponents as morally bankrupt. “We’re fighting a holy war,” he roared. “What’s happened to America is that the wicked are bearing rule. We have to lead the nation back to the moral stance that made America great.”
Falwell founded the Moral Majority in the 1970s, an organization that was enormously successful in mobilizing the Christian Right in politics and organizing within the Republican Party. The Moral Majority helped make opposition to abortion, marriage equality, and secularization major motivating forces in Republican politics. By the time the organization disbanded in 1989, the Christian right was a key stakeholder in the Republican Party, and being a conservative in American politics went arm-in-arm with being a Christian.
A large part of Falwell’s appeal came from the social and cultural shifts of the 1960s. Civil rights, the sexual revolution, and rising secularization during the decade heralded a decline of influence for Christians, resulting in a furious backlash that is still ongoing. Falwell’s rhetoric on turning back the clock, taking America back to an earlier cultural era, making it “great again,” are echoed in the modern Christian Right.
It makes sense, then, that Christian nationalists are such ardent supporters of former President Donald Trump and his long-standing campaign against social progress.
The ultimate goal for Christian nationalists is a rollback of the political and cultural shifts that have been ongoing since the 1960s. They view modern America as morally corrupt, and liberals and Democrats not only as political opponents, but as enemies of God. Abortion is the issue that is most associated with the Religious Right. But Christian nationalists are also pushing to curb secularization of public schools, to receive taxpayer funding for religious institutions, to limit the political rights of religious minorities, and to erode cultural liberalization and pluralism in the political arena. To Christian nationalists, the only legitimate form of government is one in which the Bible influences the law, and where Christians are the group making the decisions for everyone else. This vision is fundamentally incompatible with democracy. Pluralism doesn’t work if the separation between church and state is irrevocably severed. It also leads us down a path towards minority rule.
According to Pew Research Center, self identified Christians now comprise 63% of the US population, down from 75% in 2010. Almost a third of American adults are now religiously unaffiliated. Given these trends, it is only a matter of time before Christians are an actual minority in American society. However, Christians still dominate US politics. Pew also found that nearly 90% of the 117th Congress identifies as Christian, despite the Christian share of the population falling by double digits over the past decade. In the Republican Party, especially among Trump’s core supporters, the opposite phenomenon is happening—more white Americans are actually picking up the evangelical label. When taken together, these trends make sense. The US is diversifying and secularizing rapidly overall, and in response the Republican Party has doubled down on racial and religious grievance politics. The religious right feels that it is fighting desperately for a moral vision of America that is under threat.
But the reality on the ground is that Christian nationalists have made a series of political gains over the past few decades, particularly in the courts. These gains risk encroaching on the political rights of non-Christians and are potentially a threat to our system of pluralistic democracy. In a study published in The Supreme Court Review, legal scholars Eric A. Posner and Lee Epstein found that the Roberts-led Supreme Court ruled in favor of religion 81% of the time. “Plainly, the Roberts court has ruled in favor of religious organizations, including mainstream Christian organizations, more frequently than its predecessors,” wrote the study’s authors. “With the replacement of Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Amy Coney Barrett, this trend will not end soon and may accelerate.” The study’s authors argued that the rate of religious organizations winning cases at the Supreme Court is much higher than earlier eras. And that most of the organizations bringing these suits are explicitly Christian.
Christian nationalist politics have also influenced a wide range of legislation sweeping the country. Christian political groups associated with the Republican Party, such as the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, have helped draft new legislation promoting extreme conservative Christian values. Texas’ law virtually banning abortion and Mississippi’s legal challenge of Roe v. Wade are directly tied to the Christian nationalist view of womens’ role in society. Americans United for Separation of Church and State found that numerous states had passed laws since 2017 which imposed Christian values on everyone else, often under the guise of ‘religious liberty.’ In states like Florida and Alabama, public schools now must display the phrase “In God We Trust.”
What will a future American society look like if Christian nationalists are ultimately successful in their reclamation project? It means Christianity in publicly-funded schools. Abortion illegal at the federal level. Civil rights, marriage equality, and the rights of other religious expressions rolled back. The successes of the Christian right don’t only affect Americans living in red states. Supreme Court rulings affect Americans everywhere, as the upcoming court ruling on Mississippi’s challenge to Roe v. Wade could have a devastating impact on reproductive rights around the country. The danger of Christian nationalism poses a serious threat to pluralistic democracy. Proponents of democracy must start taking it seriously.