Addressing Christian nationalism

June 28th, 2022

As recent congressional hearings have reminded us in vivid detail, a violent mob attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2020, in a shocking effort to stop the certification of the election of Joe Biden as the next President of the United States. Perhaps most shocking to people of faith that day were the numerous Christian banners and symbols, an actual massive wooden cross, and the spectacle of one group – the “Jericho march” – blowing shofars and praying to bring down the walls of government. These insurrectionists belong to a movement called Christian nationalism

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Christian nationalists perceive a woeful decline of America’s standing in the world due to what they see as the nation’s growing degeneracy – and with it, a belief in an urgent call to restore the nation to its original goodness and mandate to lead the world into godliness. The U.S. was founded, according to this group, by evangelical Christians (a misreading of the complex history of the Constitution) to become a new Jerusalem in which (white) Christians, mostly male, will rule over a nation whose laws are to perfectly align with a selective, fundamentalist reading of biblical mandates. 

Making scant reference to the teachings of Jesus about love, healing, and justice, Christian nationalist preachers see an avenging Jesus coming to wage spiritual warfare against the current decadent ways of America (and the world). They interpret what they see as a growing depravity of the current age as evidence that the Apocalypse is near – and it is their duty to help bring it about – even by force. The very term “Christian nationalism” really means white nationalism and white supremacy. A cynical alliance of right-wing politicians and ultra-conservative church leaders has been strategically eroding gender rights and racial equality. Christian nationalism is a fanatical, radical departure from the teachings of Jesus and any faithful reading of the Gospels, and it is also dangerously anti-democratic.

Lest we conclude this is a small fringe movement, statistics show that nearly two thirds of mainline Protestants and two thirds of all Christians taken together, agree with at least some of the beliefs, if not the actions, of the thousands who marched on the capitol on January 6. Sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry conducted a large-scale study, in which they show the following statistics, some of which are surprising in scope: About half of all Americans agree with some or all Christian nationalist beliefs.[1] Fully 88% of Christian nationalists are white evangelical Protestants, and among evangelical Protestants, 80% agree with Christian nationalist beliefs. Many Roman Catholics also lean toward these beliefs.

Some Christian leaders, both mainline and evangelical, have begun to sound the alarm about the dangers of Christian nationalism and its corrosive effects on Christian faith from within the church.  Many of us are now asking “How can Christians who claim to believe in Jesus’ Abba-God of love, mercy, justice, and truth, participate in such a distortion of the Gospel?” And even closer to home, “How can I talk to my friend / family member/ neighbor when such a serious chasm divides us now?” And as a religious leader, “how do I help my congregation members to talk about these issues when the country is so divided?”

Sometimes dialogue is simply not possible, especially with an entrenched “True Believer” of Christian nationalism. The first principle, most pastoral counselors and social psychologists will agree, is that argumentation will not work. Argumentation, especially when heated, merely raises defenses and reinforces polarization. And we do not need to passively accept verbal abuse (or worse). Nor am I suggesting that we try to create a false “peace” forged by mainstream appeals to “unity,” which gloss over the deadly realities of racism and other forms of oppression and silence movements for justice and social change – not, as the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel both warned, “crying peace, peace when there is no peace.” Our best recourse, when dialogue is impossible, is to channel our energy instead into education, preaching, and advocacy for justice and social change.  

When we do sense some openness to honest conversation, and where some mutual trust is perhaps already established, the best way “in” is to show respect and to listen more than we speak – not pounce on an error in their thinking, or immediately try to “enlighten” or “heal” them, but to try to understand with as much empathy as we can muster what it must be like to be this person, and to inhabit their life with its various challenges and stresses. (Empathy does not have to mean agreement!) 

Maintaining relationship always comes first, by finding common ground (including shared values) and practicing respect and kindness. Much of what I advocate is being non-directive, making “I” statements rather than universal truth claims, assuming good will until proven otherwise, and when confronting seems necessary, engaging quietly in what longtime antiracist activist Loretta Ross terms “calling in” rather than loudly “calling out” another’s offenses to cause them shame – and perhaps only to signal our own virtue.

Finally, honest dialogue requires perhaps, more than anything else, that we do our own inner work of healing the split between our own righteousness and the (mostly disavowed) evil we all have to some degree. When we engage in such work, whether through therapy, spiritual direction, meditation, prayer, or other means of self-inquiry, we may be more able to withdraw our worst assumptions about the other person and enter into genuine dialogue. When this happens, we may find our way – together – closer to Christ’s Gospel of love and justice.



This article is adapted from Pamela Cooper-White’s new book, The Psychology of Christian Nationalism: Why People Are Drawn in and How to Talk across the Divide (Fortress Press, 2022). Used with permission from the author.


[1] Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States(NY: Oxford, 2020).

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