I understand White Christian Nationalism and White Christian men. I grew up immersed in the first group and was a member of the second. I served as a leader in a religious movement of over 6,000 churches with origins on the American frontier. These churches are overwhelmingly White and 100 percent male-led. The same is true for almost all evangelical denominations. Evangelicals make up about one quarter of the American population – our largest religious group.
My own theological education was from an evangelical perspective, but in my twenties I was introduced to a more liberal expression of evangelicalism, primarily through one seminary in our denomination, a place where I later taught as an instructor. I was also influenced by The Wittenburg Door, an irreverent satirical journal of the period that appealed to an entire generation of terminally curious young theologians. Although my theology became much broader, I did not leave evangelicalism. I was comfortable. I liked the people and the camaraderie. I did not understand the damage I was doing by remaining.
I did push and cajole, particularly on the subject of women in leadership, something frowned upon in almost all corners of evangelicalism, and certainly within the movement of churches of which I was a part. When I wrote a magazine column on adding women to the eldership of churches and placing them in lead ministry positions, I received letters from leaders within our denomination who reminded me that “God placed men in charge of the church.” Uh, okay, that’s actually not true. But that view has a deep history in the church, and has dominated evangelicalism.
So much of White Christian Nationalism is rooted in White Christian men who were taught that God intended for things to be this way, not just for the church, but for all of society. I don’t know how many times I heard professors and evangelical thought leaders say, “America was founded as a Christian nation.” Except that it wasn’t. When America was founded, a lot of its citizens were Christians, but our Founding Fathers protected our nation by not establishing a government-sanctioned religion.
White Christian Nationalism tries to gloss over this truth and make our Founding Fathers more Christian than they were. They try to make us believe that it was a conservative form of Protestantism that created the core values of the United States.
I suppose you could say that the core values of this nation can be found in the Magna Carta, written in England in 1215. You could also say that the Magna Carta finds its core values in Judeo-Christian teaching. But to go from that to saying America was started as a Christian nation is quite a leap. To say it was begun as an evangelical nation is an even wider chasm. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Monroe, George Washington and John Adams were all Christians, but they were also all Deists, believing that none of the supernatural events depicted in scripture were factual.
The influence of evangelicalism on American government is actually quite recent, dating back to the 1980s and the Moral Majority. Since the time of Ronald Reagan, evangelicalism has gained greater and greater influence in the halls of government. Many of the top lieutenants of George W. Bush and Donald Trump were evangelicals.
I was invited to attend the National Prayer Breakfast in 2002, and was surprised at how many members of Bush’s cabinet identified themselves as evangelical. Eight members of Donald Trump’s cabinet identified as evangelical, including Betsy DeVos, a member of the Christian Reformed Church, and Mike Pompeo, a member of a very conservative Presbyterian denomination.
This relatively recent evangelical influence on American government is the product of White Christian Nationalists, who believe evangelical teachings should be the rule of our nation. I say “White Christian Nationalists” because they are almost all White. There are very flew Black and Brown people among their ranks. They believe LGBTQ support is anti-Christian, though that perspective comes from a narrow evangelical interpretation of scripture. They believe our laws should ban gay marriage, transgender rights, and other basic civil rights. Simply put, they want to impose their narrow interpretation of the Bible on the entire American population.
Beneath their desire for an evangelical-based rule of law is their desire for current power structures to remain in place. Not only are they opposed to LGBTQ rights, they are also opposed to a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body. That is consistent with a worldview that says men should be in charge of women at home, at church, and by extrapolation, in every other area of society. It is the major religious teaching on gender roles in 28 states of the United States. Who drives this teaching? Men. Of the 100 largest churches in the nation, all 100 are led by men, and 93 of them are White.
White Christian Nationalism is a threat to the core values of American democracy. That I used to be a part of that power structure, barely lifting a finger from within to challenge its dominance, is a great regret. Fortunately, none of us should be judged by the worst thing we’ve ever done.
When I was a leader in the evangelical world, I am sorry I did little more than write an editorial or two on women in leadership. When I see the power evangelicalism has today, and the rabid fervor with which they wield that power, I am frightened. I am afraid of White Christian Nationalism. You should be afraid too.