Global Currents article

Religion, Politics, and Trump’s Christian Nationalism

“One Nation Under God Indivisible” poster from Stop the Steal rally in Raleigh, NC on January 6, 2021. Photo Credit: Flickr user Anthony Crider. CC BY 2.0.

A key paradox at the heart of American politics is that the United States is a deeply religious society with a secular institutional framework. This anomaly is rooted in a compromise embodied in the Constitution over the proper relationship between religion and state. Like most contentious issues, however, this debate remains a source of conflict. Moreover, those advocating a theocratic vision for the country have gained ground in recent years. The strength of this vision—and of the religious right—however, has less to do with an increased religiosity among Americans than with the conscious manipulation of conservative religion for partisan gain. Conservative donors, strategists, and politicians have long used religion and race to persuade working class Whites to vote along cultural lines, not class lines. While the intent may have been to elect pro-business Republicans (and to enable a hawkish foreign policy), the effect has been to normalize a right-wing vision of Christian nationalism. More to the point, the instrumental use of conservative religion has empowered a culture war dynamic that has taken on a life of its own and, in the process, transformed the Republican Party and facilitated the rise of Donald Trump.

Religion and American Politics

A key debate at the founding of this country was whether or not there should be an established church. Early Puritans (and their heirs) assumed that political unity required a high degree of religious uniformity and, thus, supported a close affiliation of religious authority and political power. From this view, the regulation of religious thought and practice was seen as a legitimate function of government. On the other hand, dissenting Puritans (such as Roger Williams), Enlightenment thinkers, and others advocated tolerance in matters of religion and belief. These individuals were critical of established churches and saw in the separation of church and state a means of protecting both politics from religion and religion from politics.

There was also the fact of religious diversity. The early American republic was characterized by a plurality of Christian denominations, so the question of establishment raised a related issue: Whose church? The framers of the Constitution found a compromise on the matter, which is embodied in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Despite this formal separation of church and state, American nationalism has always been intertwined with Protestant Christianity. Protestantism (and, later, the Judeo-Christian tradition more generally) provides the myths, symbols, and images of American national identity and has long provided a vernacular for American politics. The manner in which religion informs the country’s political life, however, has varied significantly over time. In the mid-twentieth century, modernist religious thought influenced the ecumenical secularism of the Kennedy/Johnson era, a trend which is captured in Robert Bellah’s notion of American civil religion. This interpretation of the American project was thoroughly religious, but it was also non-sectarian and at least theoretically inclusive (even if the historical circumstances were less so). During that same period, there was also an exclusive vision of religious nationalism that conflated conservative Christianity with a commitment to free market economics, segregation, and a deep anti-communist sensibility. This vision of religion and state—what Bellah referred to as the “American legion type of ideology that fuses God, country and flag” —was evident within the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade, the John Birch Society, and preached by evangelists such as Billy Hargis among others.

At issue in these competing visions of American nationalism were differences of both religious interpretation and political life. Modernist readings of the Christian tradition informed the ecumenical secularism of the mid-20th century, while a “literal” or fundamentalist interpretation informed the more exclusive notion of religious nationalism. Both provided a religious interpretation of the American experience, but in sharply contrasting terms. Politically, the question was whether the country ought to embrace an inclusive conception of American society—one tolerant of diverse communities and religions—or whether America was in fact a Christian nation that ought to privilege the ethnic motifs and religious beliefs of the dominant community. In short, should the state support an open or a closed vision of American society?  While secularism as neutrality was admittedly an unrealized ideal, it did provide the moral and conceptual framework for an inclusive, civic nationalism, and provided an opening for the civil and women’s rights movements of the 1960s. Significantly, such efforts to create a more inclusive society helped to fuel the conservative counter-revolution of the 1970s and 1980s.

While secularism as neutrality was admittedly an unrealized ideal, it did provide the moral and conceptual framework for an inclusive, civic nationalism, and provided an opening for the civil and women’s rights movements of the 1960s.

These debates over both religion and politics informed the Culture Wars of the 1990s and have grown more intense over time. On the one hand, there is a genuine feeling among conservative Christians today that traditional values are under threat from an amoral secular culture that has ostensibly banned religion from the public square. Central to this argument is an assumption that secularism is invariably hostile to religion, never neutral. Moreover, it is the perceived demise of traditional values—and an assumption that religion has lost its influence in public life—that is argued to be the source of contemporary social problems. As former Attorney General William Barr noted in a 2019 speech, drug abuse, broken families, depression, and any number of other social pathologies are “the bitter results of the new secular age.” By banning prayer in school, legalizing abortion, and normalizing alternative lifestyles, American society had—according to Barr—allowed moral relativism to undermine the country’s traditional sense of moral order. The solution, according to Barr and others, is a more central role for religion in government and public life.

Opponents of this view argue that religious conservatives are trying to use the coercive power of the state to promote their vision of religion at the expense of all others. In the process, such activists are threatening democracy. The state promotion of conservative Christianity will necessarily infringe on individual rights and sanction policies that are inherently discriminatory. Central to this alternative perspective is a belief that the societal ills of which Barr and others speak are the byproduct of an unregulated market economy, not the loss of religion. Hence, insofar as there is a role for government here, it should focus on supporting education, providing healthcare, and ensuring the equal treatment of all citizens. Government should not be mandating prayer in public schools or limiting a people’s right to control their own body. The 2022 Supreme Court decisions striking down Roe v. Wade and expanding the use of public funds for parochial schools are indicative of where this debate stands today.

Positive Polarization

These are important issues and debates with deeply held views by people on all sides. However, America’s culture wars consume a disproportionate amount of attention in political discourse, particularly given the diminishing religiosity of the population. To understand the continued salience of these issues—and the outsized influence of right-wing religious organizations in American politics—one needs to look at the way in which the Republican Party has used conservative religion as a basis of populist mobilization. A key figure in this trend was Richard Nixon, who consciously used race, religion, and culture to appeal to White, working-class voters. Commonly referred to as the Southern Strategy, the intent of such appeals was to politicize divisive social issues in order to polarize society along cultural, not class, lines. Republican Party strategists believed that this type of “positive polarization” would diminish the salience of economic issues as a basis for voting and split the Democratic coalition that had dominated the country since the 1930s and 1940s.

In pursuing this strategy, Nixon (and later Republicans) readily conflated an evangelical reading of Protestant Christianity with conservative policy priorities, such as tax cuts, free market economic policies, and an assertive foreign policy. They also used racial “dog whistles” to court Southern Democrats and used the fear of communism to smear liberals, Keynesian economic policies, the media, and the educated elite. This type of rhetoric was meant to appeal to conservative Catholics (especially in the Northeast) as well as conservative Protestants by providing a priestly affirmation for traditional patterns of social order.  The Nixon strategy also treated the far right as a constituency to be courted, not shunned. In doing so, the instrumental manipulation of conservative religion helped to normalize the ideas of right-wing extremism and provided them a home within the Republican Party.

Richard Nixon, U.S. Republican nominee for President, smiles while standing on his motorcade car and giving a “victory” sign during a ticker-tape parade northbound on S. LaSalle St. at W. Monroe St. in the Chicago Loop, September 4, 1968. Photo credit: Flickr user GPA Photo Archive. CC BY-NC 2.0.

The basic contours of Nixon’s Southern Strategy have informed Republican campaigns at all levels for the past fifty years. Ronald Reagan’s conservative revolution was premised on the same kind of right-wing populism, appeals to conservative Christianity, and racial dog whistles, as Nixon. George H. W. Bush’s 1988 campaign (and Pat Buchanan’s 1992 bid for the presidency) similarly used race, religion and culture to draw sharp distinctions between Republicans and their opponents. The election of George W. Bush—and the events of 9/11—had a profound impact on this dynamic and greatly strengthened the forces of an exclusive religious nationalism. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were clothed in a religious rhetoric that fused conservative Christianity with American militarism and support for the “war on terror” became a litmus test for American patriotism.

Significantly, there were two enemies during the George W. Bush era: those within and those without. On the one hand, there were the forces of so-called “Islamofacism” which were said to represent a civilizational threat akin to fascism and communism. On the other hand, there were the internal enemies—liberals, secularists, and critics—who were characterized as insufficiently patriotic and not serious about national security. In this way, the Bush Administration (and the Bush campaigns) used the war on terror as a culture war issue to further polarize the American electorate. Liberal policies and politicians were subsequently denigrated as culturally inauthentic and Democrats as hostile to “traditional values.”

While the election of Barack Obama seemed to indicate that America had turned a corner and returned to the ecumenical secularism of an earlier era, this proved illusory. Obama’s election generated its own conservative backlash and spawned a range of conspiracy theories about the pending “Islamization” of the West and a “stealth jihad” facilitated by the political left. In this context, activists on the right conflated the threat of terrorism with anti-minority and anti-immigration sentiments and identified multi-culturalism as a key threat to the unity of the nation. Donald Trump rode this anti-Obama backlash all the way to the White House.

Trump’s Christian Nationalism

This context helps to explain the Trump phenomenon. In many respects, Trump was the culmination of the Southern Strategy and the party’s emphasis on culture war politics. Trump was a lead voice in the “Birther” movement that was premised upon the lie that Obama was not actually born in the United States and that he was secretly a Muslim. Trump’s right-wing populism also fused American militarism with an amorphous appeal to “traditional values.” Where Trump differed from earlier Republicans was in his overt xenophobia and racism. While racist appeals had long been implicit in the strategies of positive polarization, they were explicit in the Trump era. It was also clear that Trump was far more in tune with the right-wing base than the Republican party leadership, indicating that the party had lost control of the forces which it had helped to unleash.

One perplexing part of this story was Trump himself. How is it that he would become a standard bearer of the Christian right when his misogyny, materialism, and “hatred for the other,” stood in such sharp contrast to the essence of Jesus’ teachings? As former Bush speech writer Michael Gerson noted, Trump’s ethos “smack[s] more of Nietzsche than of Christ.” And, yet, Trump had the overwhelming support of White evangelical Protestants, winning a greater percentage of that demographic in 2016 than either Reagan or Bush. White, conservative Catholics were similarly supportive and gave Trump an edge in key swing states in 2020.

There are a number of possible explanations for this anomaly, but a key issue can be found in the aforementioned conflict over competing visions of the nation. Although Trump—a thrice married casino owner who pays off his adulterous lovers—may not be an exemplary Christian, he is nonetheless seen as an aggressive leader in America’s culture war. According to individuals like William Barr or Franklin Graham (among others), Christians are an oppressed—and persecuted—population within an increasingly secular society. The country, in short, is in a state of civil war and Trump is seen as the strong man who is uniquely able to stand up to the “liberal elite.”

Although Trump—a thrice married casino owner who pays off his adulterous lovers—may not be an exemplary Christian, he is nonetheless seen as an aggressive leader in America’s culture war.

Hence, the call to “take back our country” refers to the idea that conservative Christians (Catholics and Protestants) need to take control of the pillars of American society—government, media, education, and the law—and use that control to end the separation of church and state and reshape civil society in a manner consistent with their interpretation of the Christian tradition. This vision of society, moreover, is one that reaffirms traditional patterns of social hierarchy and racial privilege. For all his faults, Trump was seen as able to deliver on this promise. In short, it was not a Christian ethic that drew conservative Christians to Donald Trump, but rather a sense of political tribalism and a base transactionalism. In exchange for their political support, Trump was willing to pass laws and appoint judges that would privilege their conservative, “Christian worldview,” and that would roll back legal protections ensuring racial, gender, and marriage equality.

Another reason why Trump became the standard bearer in America’s culture wars is that he stood for nothing else. The entire point of politicizing issues like abortion, bathroom usage, and/or trans athletes is to distract the American electorate from the ill effect of economic policies that have contributed to the country’s deindustrialization and concentrated the nation’s wealth in the hands of a few. Trump’s culture war politics, in short, were primarily about firing up the base and distracting the press and the public from the lack of an agenda beyond tax cuts, conservative judges, and self-enrichment. Disinformation and slander—from QAnon to the Big Lie—were an essential part of this strategy because they helped to create an image of Democrats as craven and hostile to the interests of working people.

Finally, the reason that Trump’s culture war politics plays so well is that Republican party operatives and conservative activists and media have been successful in pushing these narratives for over 50 years. In short, there was fertile ground for Trump’s scorched earth politics. The Republican Party’s politicization of religion successfully created a basis of popular support for itself, but the price has been high. The strategy of positive polarization has fueled the country’s divisive politics and talk of civil war and violence on the campaign trail is now shockingly common. The country also has a deeply politicized judiciary, where “renegotiating the boundaries between church and state is the [Supreme] Court’s current project.” America’s culture wars have also affected popular perceptions of Christianity. As one former Bush Administration official lamented, “the name ‘Jesus’ doesn’t bring to mind the things he said he wanted associated with his followers—love for one another; love for the poor, sick and imprisoned; self-denial; and devotion to God. It is associated with anti-abortion activities, opposition to gay rights, the Republican Party, and tax cuts.” For those who embrace Christ’s teachings on love, forgiveness, and social justice—and who are uneasy about the use of Christianity to glorify the pursuit of wealth and power—these trends will be deeply troubling.

This post is based on a presentation given at Valparaiso University in April of 2022.

Scott Hibbard
Scott Hibbard is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at DePaul University.  He has a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, and advanced degrees from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Georgetown University.  He is the author of Religious Politics and Secular States: Egypt, India and the United States (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), and co-author (with David Little) of Islamic Activism and U.S. Foreign Policy (U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 1997).

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