What Is Christian Nationalism and What Is Its History in the U.S.?

Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, and other conservatives have called on Americans to embrace Christian nationalism in recent days, drawing intense backlash from some fellow Christians and non-religious individuals alike.

In Saturday remarks to the conservative Turning Point USA Student Action Summit in Florida, Greene argued that Christian nationalism is "a good thing."

"That's not a bad word," the GOP congresswoman said. "That's actually a good thing. There's nothing wrong with leading with your faith....If we do not live our lives and vote like we are nationalists—caring about our country, and putting our country first and wanting that to be the focus of our federal government—if we do not lead that way, then we will not be able to fix it."

Her remarks drew accusations that she was a "Nazi" and comparisons to the Taliban, the Afghan militant group that enforces an extremist version of Islamic law. Other Republican lawmakers have touted the ideology and taken aim at the long-standing principle of the separation of church and state in recent months.

Cross on January 6
Right-wing lawmakers and conservative Christians have publicly promoted Christian nationalism in recent weeks. Above, a man holds a large wooden cross near the Washington Monument during a rally in support of President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021. JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

"Christian nationalism is the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way. Popularly, Christian nationalists assert that America is and must remain a 'Christian nation'—not merely as an observation about American history, but as a prescriptive program for what America must continue to be in the future," Dr. Paul D. Miller, professor of the practice of international affairs and co-chair for global politics and security at Georgetown University, explained in a 2021 article for Christianity Today.

Christian nationalists "believe that Christianity should enjoy a privileged position in the public square," Miller wrote. Such an ideology has been touted by many right-wing supporters of former President Donald Trump and was openly on display during the January 6, 2021, attack against the U.S. Capitol.

While the U.S. has long been a nation where the majority of citizens identify as Christian, the population has always been divided into a wide variety of denominations. The framers of the Constitution were concerned about protecting the population from the imposition of a specific religious ideology, which had led to substantial conflicts throughout Europe over the preceding centuries.

In an effort to safeguard against this, the First Amendment to the Constitution states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence who served as the third U.S. president, wrote a well-known letter expounding on what this separation should look like in practice.

"I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declares that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between Church and State," Jefferson wrote in the 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists.

Some right-wing figures who approve of Christian nationalism have openly called for eroding the principle of separation of church and state in recent months. Individuals espousing such Christian nationalist views have sometimes varying, but often aligning, goals. These include things like encouraging prayer in public schools, imposing Christian views on public education curricula, prohibiting same-sex marriage, banning abortion and adjusting immigration policies to favor Christians, among others.

Christian nationalist sentiments have always existed in the U.S., and such views have previously been used to prop up some of the worst aspects of the country's history.

"For example, in past generations, to the extent that the United States had a quasi-established official religion of Protestantism, it did not respect true religious freedom. Worse, the United States and many individual states used Christianity as a prop to support slavery and segregation," Miller explained.

Recent Pew Research Center data shows that about 70 percent of the U.S. population identifies as Christian, although that category is broken down into various denominations with differing beliefs. Nearly 6 percent of the population identifies as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu, while almost 23 percent has no religious affiliation.

Although Christians are the majority, there is a wide range of differing beliefs within this broad category. Historically, Catholics, which now account for about 21 percent of the population, were marginalized by the Protestant majority. Many of the early immigrants to North America were from various Protestant groups seeking an escape from repressive European nations that were led by governments that had Catholicism as the state religion.

As a result, the framers of the Constitution wanted to avoid creating a similar issue in the U.S., in which citizens faced persecution or unequal rights due to their religious beliefs. At the same time, many Protestants within the population viewed Catholics with skepticism, questioning their loyalty to the country. In 2020, President Joe Biden became only the second Catholic to ever be elected as commander in chief.

"Religion, and Christianity in particular, has flourished in America not because of government aid or favoritism, but for the opposite reason: religion's freedom from government control. Government involvement in religious affairs doesn't aid the free exercise of religion. And as Christians, we are called to love our neighbors rather than make them feel unwelcome in their own country," Amanda Tyler, an attorney and the executive director of Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, wrote in an article published by CNN on Wednesday.

Some Republicans and religious leaders have taken aim at Greene and others touting Christian nationalism.

"Unlike Marjorie Taylor Greene, I've studied the Scriptures & devoted myself to serving the Church. Christian nationalism is a racist ideology incompatible with Christianity," the Reverend Chuck Currie, an Oregon pastor, wrote in a Monday tweet. "Jesus was for all the world, not one nation. Beware false teachers like Greene. She dances with the devil."

Representative Adam Kinzinger has compared Greene and the ideology to the Taliban.

"'We need to prove to people we are the party of Christian Nationalism.' Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene 'We are the party of Islamic nationalism...' Taliban. I oppose the American Taliban. @GOPLeader?" he wrote on Twitter Friday morning, tagging House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican.

In response to Kinzinger's criticism, Greene's press secretary Nick Dyer told Newsweek in a Friday email: "It's our policy to ignore Kinzinger's desperate attempts at relevancy."

Notably, aligning the church and state as Christian nationalists aim to do is opposed by a large majority of Americans.

Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Americans believe religion should be kept separate from government policies, according to a Pew Research survey from late April. Only a quarter of respondents said that government policies should support religious values and beliefs. Furthermore, 70 percent of Americans want churches and other religious places of worship to stay out of politics, according to 2021 Pew Research data.