Marcia Pally’s book White Evangelicals and Right-Wing Populism (Routledge 2022) begins with an important question: “How did we get here?” To further contextualize her in-depth analysis of how White Evangelicals’ support helped elect Donald J. Trump and the church history she uses to map the relationship between evangelicalism and politics, I am going to pull the camera back to an even wider angle. Understanding the power of Christianity in American national identity will help us answer not only Pally’s opening question but other crucial questions like “Where do we go from here?”
To understand how Trump, Trumpism, and the weaponizing of “Christianity” in support of the current conservative and anti-democratic movement in the United States are possible, we need to understand the longer story of Christian privilege in America.
When it comes to political and social power in the United States, the beginning of the story is not a place of neutrality among religions or among racial groups. That’s the myth we’re taught in school, of course: that the Puritans founded the nation as a place where all could worship freely and enshrined religious equality not in just any amendment but in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In fact, four hundred years of law, culture, and economic power have produced advantages enjoyed only by those who are White and Christian. Christian privilege comprises numerous unearned advantages that all Christians have because of the legal structures and social mores that have shaped our society and country from the first arrival of European settlers. Intertwined with White privilege, Christian privilege has become part of our culture and institutions. That’s why I’ve written, including in my most recent book, that the approaching moment when White people become less than a majority of the U.S. population–and even the US population’s measured decline in Christian affiliation–are not the watersheds many White Christians fear. Christianity’s legal and social power and the cultural influence of Christian normativity continue to convey the status of truth and rightness upon things Christian, to normalize Christian values as intrinsic to American national identity, and to make Christian language and metaphor and their underlying theology the national standard.
For example, in 2004 Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue was asked by Atlanta’s Khabar magazine about his support for displaying the Ten Commandments on government property and how he would feel about a display of verses from the Bhagavad Gita or the Holy Quran, Perdue responded: “Well, I think the Ten Commandments transcends its mere religious or historical significance. It’s also principle-centered in that way.” When asked specifically whether the presence of the Ten Commandments on government property would be an imposition of Christianity on the entire nation (and therefore unconstitutional), Purdue replied: “I don’t think it’s trying to impose Christianity. That would be wrong. … [T]he Ten Commandments is a principle-centered basis that guides our moral lives. I don’t view it strictly as a spiritual document that you have to adhere to, to be accepted in this country. That’s the distinction I make.”
The Ten Commandments are literally the text of the twentieth chapter of the Book of Exodus, regarded as holy Scripture by Christians and Jews. Yet Purdue described them as “transcend[ing] . . . mere religious or historical significance.” While some of the Ten Commandments may articulate principles also found in other religions, they are not, as Purdue argued, merely “a principle-centered basis that guides our [American] moral lives.” They are particular faiths’ holy Scripture, including – among other things – the admonition: “I am the Lord thy God… Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
Purdue’s arguments illustrate the powerful effect of Christian normativity: the assumption by Christians that their own belief system is universal or ought to be rendered universal without question or critique. This is the same cultural phenomenon that results in the Bible alone being treated as a “holy.” In numerous contexts, but particularly in the courtroom and in public service, the idea of an “oath” is essential. We have all seen it on television: a trial witness will place her hand on the Bible and swear to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” The act connotes seriousness and inspires trust.
In the U.S., that seriousness and trust attaches only to the Bible, and not to any other holy book. In the New Jersey case Davis v. Husain, for example, one juror revealed after the trial that she found the defendant, an Indian American Hindu, to be a less credible and trustworthy witness because he did not swear his oath on the Bible. As a result, she voted for the plaintiff to win the case.
This deep cultural privilege enjoyed by Christianity, and Christianity alone, is the backdrop against which we must understand our moment in history. Millions of American Christians who would never have ransacked the U.S. Capitol or marched in Charlotteville’s 2017 tiki torch brigade nevertheless find the ideas behind those movements both truthful and patriotic.
That’s why, despite Christianity’s deep entwinement with White supremacy over the centuries, the current movement has attracted people (mostly men) of color as well. (As my colleague Dan Cassino has pointed out, the association of Christian conservatism with traditional gender roles makes masculinity–and the perception of one’s own masculinity as under political threat–another element of contemporary political conservatism.)
It’s essential to understand that today’s surge in White Christian nationalism, and its effects on the body politic, is about more than just Evangelicals. To fully understand the political present, scholarly and media attention must go beyond Evangelicals and even Christians to include the viewpoints and experiences of American religious minorities. White Christian nationalism is not just a 21st century political movement; it is a 400-year project that began with the extermination of indigenous non-Christians and the enslavement of African non-Christians, continued through early-1900s immigration and citizenship restrictions that favored northern European Protestants over all others, through the mid-century internment of mostly non-Christian Japanese Americans, and then re-emerged in Trump’s 2017 “Muslim ban” and other policies.
Understanding contemporary White Christian nationalism not just on its own but in this longer context, will be essential to fully diagnose the pathologies of this moment in history and to prescribe the solutions that might help us make the American myth of religious equality more real in the 21st century.