The concept has circulated for decades in scholarly circles, where it was more often used in an international context than applied to the United States. But since 2016, it’s become a popular term of art for Christian conservative politics. Georgetown international affairs professor Paul D. Miller defines Christian nationalism as “the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way.” Sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry use six criteria, including belief that the federal government should declare the U.S. a Christian nation and that American success is “part of God’s plan.
“It’s easy to find criticisms of Christian nationalism, which dominate both academic and popular discussions of the subject. It’s far more difficult to locate advocates, at least under that name. Rather than encouraging substantive analysis of specific opinions or proposals, the label functions as a pre-emptive dismissal. To describe something “Christian nationalism” is inevitably to reject it.
That rejection is too quick, though. It’s possible to worry about specific kinds of political enthusiasm without dismissing all religious interpretation of American history or purpose. “Christian nationalism” is simply too broad identify the real problem with some brands of right-wing politics — as shown by the fact that a majority of Americans meet at least one of Whitehead and Perry’s criteria. Christian nationalism, in the scholarly sense, certainly exists in this country. But in its popular incarnation, the phrase often confuses more than it clarifies — and its overuse may undermine one of our best defenses against the real thing.