Distinctly American folk religiosity is labeled “Christian nationalism” for partisan political points.
Almost immediately after the U.S. Capitol riot of Epiphany, 2021, commentators decried it as an example of a “Christian nationalism” increasingly polluting the—should we assume hitherto untainted?—American body politic. The Washington Post brought in David French to discuss the phenomenon. Preaching the kinder, gentler sounding Christian patriotism, Russell Moore, leader of the Southern Baptist Church’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission denounced Christian nationalism as a heresy. Leave aside for the moment the fact that a church wedded to separating religion from the civil order has a bureaucratic apparatus for making sure its voice is heard in our republic’s councils of state. Various other Evangelicals chimed in, too, and there is a letter denouncing Christian nationalism circulating where you too, dear reader, may signal your own righteous condemnation.
I’m not ready to call Christian nationalism heresy. And I’m not convinced that what was represented at the Capitol on January 6 was a meaningful example of the historical or traditional set of intellectual, political, or social presumptions associated with Christian nationalism. What has passed for Christian nationalism in the United States is not Christian nationalism at all, but instead a revivalist folk religion massively overrepresented in so-called Evangelical, fundamentalist, and charismatic Protestantism. The very Americanism of what liberals and progressives have identified as Christian nationalism indicates that this is a rhetorical conflation done in service of openly partisan political aims. Labels such as Christian nationalism are increasingly applied to defenses of societal foundations such as the classics, liberal arts, and the natural family; this is to slander their preservation with the contrived boogeyman of Margaret Atwood’s Gilead or some sort of 21st-century Torquemada.
Populist devotees of Trump have more in common with Christian folk movements than Christian nationalist movements. During times of significant social upheaval folk and traditionalist groups have reacted to threats to the established order. During the French Revolution peasants in the Vendée fought the new revolutionary order with gusto. In the early eighteenth century Marian missionary Louis de Montfort had traveled throughout the region encouraging the Catholic faithful to rely on the intercession of the Holy Mother. His work blossomed; Vendean peasants became among the most devout in France but their expression of faith relied on folk solidarity more than the institutional Gallican church. The Vendée rose in revolt after the judicial murder of Louis XVI and the revolutionary assault on the Catholic Church in France in 1793. The French Republic killed thousands, but the Vendean Catholic army managed to fight for nearly two decades without receiving any state support.
Brazil’s Canudos War occurred almost a century later in the Brazilian backcountry. The fall of the Brazilian Empire in 1889 and the inauguration of the secular republic triggered a massive crackdown on groups that remained loyal to deposed Emperor Pedro II. Antônio Conselheiro, a religious pilgrim in Bahia state’s Canudos region, told the region’s backcountry peasants he was a forerunner to the return of St. Sebastian, a sixteenth-century Portuguese monarch who subsequent generations of syncretic Lusophone folk religion turned into an Arthurian sleeping king. Conselheiro argued that monarchs had a divine right to rule and indicted the republic for its unlawful deposition of the Emperor. While the Canudos rebels might not have been theologians they were certainly right about the chicanery used by Brazil’s army to depose Dom Pedro II, who remained universally popular with the Brazilian peasantry. The republican army and police responded with overwhelming force to anything less than total devotion to the new order. In the fall of 1897 the army and police massacred the rebels, having starved them through a siege that summer.
Both the Vendée and Canudos rebels share with their Trumpist successors a syncretic folk religiosity, with a minimal interest in Christian ecclesiastical structures. Each emerged from a culture and society informed by Christian symbology, but that hardly guarantees them to be exemplars of Christian religiosity. All three groups lacked any state sponsorship or support; societal elites of their eras viewed them as ignorant denizens of a benighted backwoods. The supposed Christian nationalists of today might confess a syncretic folk Christianity, but catechized and committed Christian churchmen devoted to systematically creating a substantive Christian state they certainly are not.
Christian nationalism as a concept includes figures as varied as Calvin, Chateaubriand, Cranmer, Donoso Cortes, Luther, and Melanchthon. American revivalist evangelical folk religion may be a facet of its real manifestations today, but the terms are not synonymous. A substantive Christian nationalism necessitates a state religion, or at least some sort of commitment to establishmentarian principles or state-supported churches. But the type of revivalist low-church Protestantism that the left and centrists have identified as “Christian nationalism” is in fact a creation of religious disestablishment. It is worth noting also that this disestablishment was itself an outgrowth of the Whiggish Christian nationalism of 18th-century Britain.
Here in the early 21st century the nature of Christian nationalism floats undefined, its value only determined by what the person using that term perceives it to be. If Christian nationalism is the tacky and tasteless low-church evangelical flag-waving of First Baptist Dallas, then I might be persuaded to concede the term to history’s trash heap. But if Christian nationalism is the British monarch entering St Paul’s Cathedral—as the sovereign has done for hundreds of years—I must defend it. Benjamin Disraeli and most Britons in the 19th century thought that the mere reading of the Book of Common Prayer and the Kings James Bible perpetuated a Christian nation, and that this was right. Winston S. Churchill said the Battle of Britain was about perpetuating Christian civilization. If reading the Authorized Bible, worshipping with the prayer book, and defeating Nazis is Christian nationalism, sign me up.
The lack of historical roots and the very Americanism of the MAGA folk religion betrays that the current conversation over Christian nationalism is about political posturing. The debate is almost entirely devoid of transcendent Christian commitments or theological understanding, and exists only in order to paint what passes for conservative politics in 2021 with the terrifying brush of “theocracy.” Politico recently ran a piece stating that Republicans wanted to “advance a Christian state.” Congressional Republicans “don’t have a commitment to a pluralistic, democratic republic. They want a Christian nation.” They are, according to the article’s interview subjects “power-mad, religious fanatics. And so there was somebody in the Senate chamber screaming out to Jesus Christ as he participated in the mob assault on the United States Capitol.”
Congressional Republicans, of course, are not Christian nationalists. Most are committed plutocrats who occasionally toss a scrap of socially conservative legislation to their supporters. Trump is not a Christian nationalist either, and neither are his most MAGA supporters. Actual Christian nationalists would be far more committed to effecting legislation consistent with historic Christian establishmentarian principles. But, even then, I’m old enough to remember George W. Bush sparking a theocracy scare. So long as the Republican Party is more worried about enabling a genocide of Arab Christians in the name of not-at-all-Christian liberal regime change, or about people kneeling during the national anthem at not-at-all-Christian NFL games, or continuing to make life easy for enormous not-at-all-Christian multinational corporations who censor Christian authors, I’m not going to wring my hands worried about Christian nationalism overtaking the United States. If it ever did, I might not wring my hands at all.
Miles Smith is visiting assistant professor of History at Hillsdale College. His main research interests are 19th-century intellectual and religious history in the United States and in the Atlantic World. You can follow him on Twitter at @IVMiles.