Backlash grows against “Christian nationalist” label, media hype


As the drumbeat about “Christian nationalism” becomes louder in the media and public life as the elections approach, conservative Christians, academics and journalists are reacting against what they see as the broad-brushed and even prejudicial application of that label, according to various reports. Christian nationalism may have various historical incarnations, but most recently it emerged as a description of conservative Christian supporters of Donald Trump who wish to restore the Christian foundations of American life. In a lengthy article on the website Religion Unplugged (April 12), Bobby Ross writes that the term “Christian nationalist” has become so pervasive that it is losing its meaning. Matthew Wilson of Southern Methodist University says “this is very much an overplayed, overhyped concept. It has gotten a lot of cachet with people on the left who want to use it as a cudgel to beat on religiously conservative voters and portray them as frightening and authoritarian.” Wilson points to similarities between the ways the left has referenced Christian nationalism and the right latched onto critical race theory a few years ago, with both terms becoming “boogeymen” in these opposing camps.

Even liberal political opinion leaders are questioning the uses of the term. Michael Wear, who served as former President Barack Obama’s faith adviser, says the term has become a “vehicle for carrying out a whole range of niche political and theological disagreements that mostly failed to gain traction under other banners—while also serving as a convenient excuse to evade accountability for Religious Right politics prior to the presidency of Donald Trump…” David French, an evangelical critic of Trump, said that by defining Christian nationalism so broadly, “you’re telling millions of ordinary churchgoing citizens that the importation of their religious values into the public square somehow places them in the same camp or the same side as actual Christian supremacists, the illiberal authoritarians who want to remake America in their own fundamentalist image.” Such critics of the wide use of the term cite the varying and often confusing estimates given of Americans sympathetic to Christian nationalism—from more than half of the population, according to Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead, to only 11 percent who are “adherents” and only five percent who self-identify as Christian nationalists, according to the recent survey Neighborly Faith.

Many of these differences are about the conflicting definitions of the term. In the online magazine Public Discourse (April 4), sociologist Jesse Smith argues that prominent scholars who have popularized the term in its broad sense, such as Perry, Whitehead, and Philip Gorski, have taken aboard a “deep story” about the dangers of Christian nationalism and American conservatism in general that includes everything from the Ku Klux Klan, gun culture, libertarianism, Fox News, QAnon, the Tea Party, conservative Christian preoccupation with sexual morality, religious freedom advocacy, Catholic integralism, and John Wayne fandom—a story that “should strain any grounded sociological imagination well past its breaking point.” Smith adds that these scholars’ encounters with the Trump era have convinced them to suspend the “scholarly virtues of objectivity and circumspection” in their alarm that authoritarian forces are “rolling back progress and imposing a social vision that would make the Nazis and Klansman feel at home…The survival of American democracy itself hangs in the balance.” He writes that survey research actually shows that “most Americans across the political spectrum affirm the value of democracy…And the idea that the Right is united around any social vision at present is little more than the stuff of wishful thinking among conservative intellectuals and strategists.”

(Religion Unplugged,; Public Discourse,