Briefing

What did Christian nationalism have to do with Jan. 6?

The movement is more than Donald Trump's religious supporters

The Republican Party should unabashedly embrace a platform of Christian nationalism, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) said last week in an interview with a conservative website. "We need to be the party of nationalism and I'm a Christian, and I say it proudly, we should be Christian nationalists," she said

Some observers think the GOP has already adopted that identity. Their evidence? The Jan. 6 riot that tried to overturn the presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. "Men and women waving flags that read 'An Appeal to Heaven' or 'Proud American Christian' surged past Capitol police as the officers tried to halt those entering the Capitol building," Jack Jenkins writes for Religion News Service. The insurrectionists broke into the Senate chamber and "bowed their heads as a self-described 'shaman; associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory movement thanked Jesus for 'allowing' them 'to get rid of the communists, the globalists and the traitors within our government.'" 

What is Christian nationalism, and what does it mean for our politics? Here is everything you need to know:

Is 'Christian nationalism' the same thing as being a patriotic Christian?

No. Christian nationalism tends to erase the distinction between "Christian" and "nationalist" — and also the separation between church and state. Adherents believe "that the US was founded as a Christian nation; the Founding Fathers were all orthodox, evangelical Christians; and God has chosen the US for a special role in history," John Blake writes for CNN. Their beliefs are based on a bad reading of history: Some of the Founders were Christian, but others weren't. "They were a collection of atheists, Unitarians, Deists, and liberal Protestants and other denominations." 

Christian nationalism takes that bad history and blends it "with nearly 'apocalyptic' views on future threats to that Christian heritage," a trio of scholars writes for the journal Political Behavior. Those supposed threats come from "rapid demographic, legal, and political change" — the rise of LGBTQ rights and Black Lives Matter — and the movement tends to explain those changes using conspiracy theories like QAnon, the theory that America is in the grips of child-molesting elites. There's also a racial component: Researchers often use the term "white Christian nationalism" to describe a movement as an "expression of Christianity that is shaped by White conservative, nativist understandings of what it means to be an American," the sociologist Samuel L. Perry said in an April interview with Religion Unplugged. One survey in 2021 found that support for the racist "great replacement theory" correlates strongly with Christian nationalist views. 

Perhaps most disturbingly, the Political Behavior scholars' research indicates that "Christian nationalism in the United States is associated with increased support for political violence." Which leads us to the next question.

What did Christian nationalism have to do with Jan. 6?

A lot. "Crosses were everywhere that day in D.C., on flags and flagpoles, on signs and clothes, around necks, and erected above the crowd," attorney Andrew L. Seidel wrote in a special report for the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty and Freedom From Religion Foundation. Bible verses also dotted the crowd, while a number of rioters paused for prayer during the attack. One of the invaders recorded herself on a social media stream explaining her reasons for participating: "We are a godly country, and we are founded on godly principles. And if we do not have our country, nothing else matters."

Researchers are still trying to figure out what to make of that. "Many Christians at the Capitol on Jan. 6 were part of more conventional, affiliated faith, including pastors, Catholic priests and bused-in church groups," The Washington Post's Michelle Boorstein wrote. But the attack came during an era in which the number of self-identified Christians has been declining precipitously in America, and even the people who identify as Christian tend to be less connected to specific denominations and their long traditions. Instead, Boorstein wrote, "institutional religion is breaking apart" putting more emphasis on individual beliefs and less on "theological credentials and oversight." That resulted in an odd dynamic surrounding Jan. 6: "Americans who have Christian-nationalist beliefs who do not attend church are more likely to have voted for and support Trump."

How big is the movement? How potent? 

Depends on how you do the measuring. A 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center identified 25 percent of Republican respondents as "church-state integrationists" who hold a variety of views "consistent" with Christian nationalism; 77 percent per people with church-state integrationist views say they're Republican or lean Republican.  A 2017 survey found that one-in-five Americans hold such views. The scholars at Political Behavior found that "support for the Capitol attacks is a minority position among any slice of the American religious landscape." But they also noted that 17.7 percent "of white weekly churchgoers fall into the joint top quartile of justification of violence, Christian nationalist beliefs, perceived victimhood, white identity, and support for QAnon." That percentage — while relatively small — "would represent millions of individuals." 

The movement seems to be gaining an increasing foothold in Republican politics. Reps. Greene and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) are two of the more famous faces of Christian nationalism, but other politicos are on the way: Doug Mastriano — a former Army officer who chartered buses to ferry protesters to Washington D.C. on Jan. 6, and who has declared the separation of church and state a "myth" —  is the GOP nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, and is now running a close race with his Democratic opponent.

One measure of the movement's potency, though, might be in the willingness of Christian nationalists to identify specifically as Christian nationalists. "Even a few months ago, many American Christians who would objectively qualify as Christian nationalists by any sociological measures, rejected the term," Calvin University's Kristine Du Mez writes at her Substack blog. Now it appears that "more Christians openly embrace and defend Christian nationalism." Marjorie Taylor Greene might have made news by openly embracing the term, but she might not be that unusual.

CORRECTION: This post originally misstated the results of a Pew Research Center survey with regards to the number of Republican "church-state integrationists." It has since been corrected. We regret the error.

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