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Three Questions to Ask Before You Call Something ‘Christian Nationalism’

The January 6 riots provided Christian Nationalism with a global stage, and many Americans were brought face to face for the first time of the extremist ideology. Rioters festooned with Christian paraphernalia stormed the U.S. Capitol, mixing far-right political belief about the legitimacy of the election with crosses and Christian slogans.

Christian Nationalism is a belief that America ought to be inherently Christian. As Taking America Back for God author Samuel Perry told us earlier this year, it is an “ideology that idealizes and advocates for a fusion of American civic life and belonging with a very particular kind of Christianity.” You don’t have to go all the way to the infamous events of January 6 for examples, since Christian Nationalism is prevalent enough to have snuck into life in myriad ways. American flags in church buildings. State laws requiring “In God We Trust” to be prominently displayed in public schools. Patriotic songs at Sunday service. All of this can help reinforce a toxic mixture of loving country and loving God, and Christians need to be very, very cautious of such cocktails.

But it’s also important that Christians be wise with regards to when and how they apply the “Christian Nationalism” label. Like “Marxism” and “Critical Race Theory” before it, it can be very easy to learn a little about a complex topic and start seeing it everywhere. If “Christian Nationalism” is your only hammer, then pretty much everything is going to look like a nail. Christian Nationalism is a subject with a good deal of research behind it, and until you’ve engaged in some of it, caution is to be exercised in throwing the term around.

Here are a few questions to ask before you call something “Christian Nationalism.”

Is This Just Politics I Don’t Like?

It’s true that Christian Nationalism has largely (though not exclusively) infiltrated politics on the far right, as evangelicalism’s convenient alliance with the Conservatism has festered in some corners into something neither particularly Christian or particularly conservative. But that doesn’t mean that any Republican measure is automatically a product of Christian Nationalism. Just as it’s possible to agree with conservative goals about things like the economy and foreign policy without joining a fringe movement of religious nationalism, it’s possible to strongly disagree with such positions in good faith without labeling it “Christian Nationalism.”

Is This Just a Politician Talking About Their Religious Beliefs?

It’s popular in some circles to call for politicians to leave their religion at home and, certainly, our elected leaders should never call for legislation that would disenfranchise those who don’t believe the way they or enshrine beliefs specific to their religion into law. But any person of faith will tell you that their lives are shaped by their faith, and it’s just not realistic to completely divorce the spiritual from the civic. People of all faiths should be allowed to discuss their religious beliefs freely in this country, and that doesn’t change for elected officials. The fact that Christians in politics may be praying, citing inspiration from the Bible or attending church isn’t a sign that they are Christian Nationalists.

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Now, with that freedom does come a responsibility for Christians in politics to make sure that all their constituents feel valued, protected and advocated for at all levels of government. Too often, Christian political leaders have made a big show of defending Christian beliefs in the public square while ignoring growing waves of violence against people of other faiths.

Is This Person Just “Voting Their Faith?”

Christian Nationalism is a movement that aims to either directly or indirectly privilege American Christians over other religious groups at an institutional level. It happens more often than many Christians might want to think it does, but it’s not necessarily the same thing as voting for causes or candidates you believe in. You might disagree with their position. You might not even find it to be a particularly good representation of how Christianity should operate in the public square. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s Christian Nationalism.

It’s important to get this right, because Christian Nationalism is real, and it’s being used to create a lot of damage to both the Christian witness and the state of our democracy. But the more that term is thrown around at things that don’t fit the bill, the less anyone has cause to actually take it seriously.

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