Why Christian Nationalists Merge Their Religious and Political Identities

In their minds, the personal is political, and the struggle will outlast Donald Trump.

Paul Ewell, a business professor and dean at Virginia Wesleyan University, wrote on Facebook recently that anyone who supported Biden for president is “ignorant, anti-American and anti-Christian.” Donald Trump was so impressed with the sentiment that he retweeted the quote with a one word commentary: “Progress!” 

We have, of course, become somewhat immune to that kind of divisiveness from the president. But when we hear it from the dean of a Christian college on social media, or as we saw when Franklin Graham and radio talk show host Eric Metaxas agree that those who oppose the president are succumbing to a demonic influence, the sentiment isn’t isolated to a few individuals among white evangelicals.

This Manichean view of the 2020 election is what drove roughly 80 percent of white evangelical Christians to vote for Trump. Their political alignment with the right means that 40 percent of Trump voters identify as white evangelical Christians, even though they represent only 15 percent of the population. 

Diana Butler Bass, an American historian of Christianity, wrote that this melding of religion and politics has “hardened into forms of identity that seem intractable at the moment.” She went on to point out how voting for Republicans has been equated with theology.

[M]illions of white evangelical Christians literally believe that if you vote for a Democrat, you will go to hell (I’m not kidding). You wonder why 80% of them vote for Republicans? Because their salvation is at stake. That’s a powerful voting incentive.

Christian nationalists have divinized politics in their quest to ensure that America isn’t just a nation friendly to Christians, but a Christian Nation in spirit and law.

To the extent that white evangelical Christians believe that anyone who votes for a Democrat is under demonic influence or will go to hell, crafting the right policy platform in an attempt to bridge the divide is an exercise in futility. This is not like arguing over infrastructure spending or a trade deal. There’s no splittable difference and there’s no logic either. It is all about identity, which, as Butler points out, is built on a sense of belonging. 

As this country opened the door of belonging a bit wider to women, people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ Americans, white evangelical Christians viewed that as a threat to their own identity and took refuge in tribalism. The battle lines were drawn between “us” and “them” with “good” on one side and “evil” on the other. 

That these changes in American culture and demographics were perceived as a threat to white evangelical Christians came as no surprise to researchers and psychologists who had determined that “conservatism is positively associated with heightened epistemic concerns for order, structure, closure, certainty, consistency, simplicity, and familiarity.” Living within that kind of social order brings clarity and eliminates ambiguity. All of that is threatened by change.

When it comes to the issues that animate white evangelical Christians, we hear a lot about the need to overturn Roe v. Wade and eliminate women’s reproductive choice. Denying systemic racism, they dismiss the shooting of innocent Black men by police officers as simply the product of a few bad apples. The Black Lives Matter movement is referred to as Marxist and therefore, evil. The cry to protect the religious freedom of evangelical Christians is not extended to those who practice another faith. To the contrary, Muslims Americans are demonized. And finally, the appointment of convervative Supreme Court justices is hailed as a welcome step towards eliminating marriage equality.

For white evangelical Christians, the threats posed by those issues represent a zero sum game that can’t withstand the inclusion of “them.” The more they feel threatened, the more they retreat into tribalism empowered by a divinized politics. That is what makes them a threat to democracy and why the term “Christian nationalists” is an appropriate descriptor. 

Ultimately, white evangelical Christians are on a collision course with cultural changes that are inevitable. Women, people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ Americans no longer accept second-class citizenship. The social order that has sustained the supremacy of white heterosexual patriarchy will be increasingly challenged. 

Where does that leave white evangelical Christians whose identity and sense of belonging have been tied to a social order that is crumbling? They will oppose the inevitable or adapt. One way to do the later is to break the bond that has developed between their religious and political identity. That would mean going back to the days prior to the advent of the Moral Majority when white evangelical Christianity became synonymous with the Republican Party. 

A trickle of evangelical leaders are promoting that approach. Andy Stanley, pastor of one of the largest megachurches in the country, advocates against “culture war Christianity,” which he describes as a perversion of biblical faith that has set the church up to be a tool for politicians to exploit. That puts him directly at odds with court evangelicals who sustain their power via access to politicians, such as Robert Jeffress, Franklin Graham, or Paula White. 

Pastors like Stanley are clearly in the minority among white evangelicals, but they play the same role with the religious right that Never Trumpers played with the Republican Party. They provide a permission structure for white evangelical Christians to maintain their religious identity, while decoupling it from a political identity. 

While we wait to see if that kind of internal challenge can forestall the continued collision between white evangelical Christians and a changing culture, the one thing the rest of us can do is to extend the invitation articulated by former President Barack Obama. 

America is not the project of any one person.  Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.”  “We The People.”  “We Shall Overcome.”  “Yes We Can.” That word is owned by no one.  It belongs to everyone.

White evangelical Christians are engaged in a zero sum battle of “us” vs “them” as a way to protect the social order that has sustained their identity. The only possible response is to invite them to embrace a “we” in which everyone belongs—no exceptions. Anything less than that risks the foundation of our democracy. 

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.