They’re Trying To Make Us a Christian Nation — Part 2

Here’s the conclusion to Linda Greenhouse’s “Victimhood and Vengeance” for the NY Review of Books that I shared some of in this morning’s post. She offers a warning we should all heed.

David Sehat, in This Earthly Frame: The Making of American Secularism, points to one moment with profound implications for the place of religion in public life.

In early 1959, John F. Kennedy needed to allay Protestant suspicions about his Catholicism. He gave an interview to Look magazine. [Asked] what influence his religion would have on him if he were elected. Kennedy answered:

Whatever one’s religion in his private life may be, for the officeholder, nothing takes precedence over his oath to uphold the Constitution and all its parts—including the First Amendment and the strict separation of church and state.

[The author of the Look article] described Kennedy’s theme as “religion is personal, politics are public, and the twain need never meet and conflict”….

Religion is personal: that was not the Catholic view by any measure. Kennedy, evidently to his surprise, was widely denounced by the church hierarchy for his failure to recognize that an officeholder was “answerable to God for actions whether public or private,” as one Catholic publication put it. And it is not the view held by evangelicals today. The recourse that Kennedy sought in the privatization of religion not only no longer satisfies; it is seen as a provocation by those who insist that faith is meant to be lived out loud.

That private religion will not suffice was the argument behind the Supreme Court’s startling decision last summer in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, which upheld the right of a football coach at a public high school to thank God from the fifty-yard line, in full view of the stands. It was also the explicit theme of Justice Samuel Alito’s speech to a conference in Rome…. Alito drew a distinction between mere “freedom of worship” and real “religious liberty.” Freedom of worship, he explained, means only

freedom to do these things that you like to do in the privacy of your home, or in your church or your synagogue or your mosque or your temple. But when you step outside into the public square, in the light of day, you had better behave yourself like a good secular citizen.

Evangelicals are no more satisfied than Alito with simply being good secular citizens. Sehat examines the Court’s valorization of “privacy” and offers a fresh analysis of the fallout from grounding the reproductive rights rulings, [in] Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) ]and Roe v. Wade (1973) on a right to privacy…. Sehat’s valuable insight is that these privacy decisions were about something deeper than birth control and abortion, or even about the ability of women to control their reproductive destiny. They amounted to “a repudiation of the social significance of religion in determining moral norms at the hands of the state.” In Roe, as evangelicals instinctively understood, “American secularism reached its apotheosis.” And so began secularism’s decline.

[These decisions helped create] a “secular order” that “decentered the dominant place of Christianity and relegated religion to the private realm along with other moral issues that an individual might confront.” Yet what it really meant to recognize and respect religion as a private realm was far from obvious. What had appeared as a settlement of a sort unraveled in a mind-bending series of changes in the meaning of privacy.

For liberals, privacy became double-edged as conservatives deployed it as a shield for discrimination. Didn’t the owner of a lunch counter have the right to refuse service to anyone he didn’t care to serve? The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was aimed in large measure at removing this supposed privacy shield from public accommodations….

And then the idea of privacy shifted yet again. Starting in the 1960s, conservatives seized on it to support private schools, as a refuge from desegregation or from secular society. For religious conservatives, the ultimate privacy claim became a claim of individual conscience, deployed to justify exemption from a legal or civic duty. Pluralism, once deemed a threat to Christian dominance, became useful when joined with privacy. “Now, pluralism could be used to demand the public recognition of private religious belief via the language of religious freedom,” Sehat smartly observes.

The constitutional scholar Reva Siegel argues that the notion of religious freedom has become … “institutionalized in such a way that a gesture to religious conscience granted nearly automatic exemption from law”…

The Christian” banners that members of the mob carried on January 6, 2021, is indelible, but also misleading.

It’s not that Christian nationalism presents no real threat to American democracy—it does. It’s not that such violence won’t recur—it might. [Focusing] on that shocking event diverts us from recognizing Christian nationalism in its less violent manifestations and calling it out when we see it: public funding of religious schools in the name of equality; social policy turned to serve Christian doctrine; nondiscrimination principles abandoned in deference to religious objectors, whether individual or institutional. These threats to long-held assumptions about how the country works are not theoretical. They are happening now, in partnership with the Supreme Court.

One example: In November 2022, celebrating his reelection, Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Kevin Stitt, offered up his state to Christianity. “Father, we just claim Oklahoma for you,” he intoned.

Every square inch, we claim it for you in the name of Jesus. Father, we can do nothing apart from you…. We just thank you, we claim Oklahoma for you, as the authority that I have as governor, and the spiritual authority and the physical authority that you give me. I claim Oklahoma for you, that we will be a light to our country and to the world right here in our state.

Why wasn’t that astonishing statement headline news from coast to coast? It was barely noticed….

In Christianity’s American Fate, David Hollinger observes:

One might suppose that we live in a world of either/or: either religious ideas are relevant to public policy and thus subject to critical discussion, or they are not relevant and thus not a topic for debate. But instead, we live in a world of both/and: religious ideas are both relevant to public policy and excluded from critical evaluation.

Each of these books offers a path to greater understanding of how a transformation occurring in full view over decades escaped the notice of many who watched in bafflement and horror as the events of January 6 unfolded. Rather than another January 6, the greater threat that Christian nationalism poses to American society may be, as these books warn us, its normalization.

They’re Trying to Make Us a Christian Nation — Part 1

In the 2020 election, 15% of white evangelical voters supported Joe Biden and 84%  supported the loser. To understand why, we need to understand white Christian nationalism.

Linda Greenhouse covered the Supreme Court for the New York Times for 30 years. She is the author of “Victimhood and Vengeance”, a long article for the New York Review of Books. You could say the first part of the article deals with victimhood. Later she deals with vengeance. I’ll share some of the vengeance part in my next post.

We tend to think of Christian nationalism, the political ideology based on the belief that the country’s authentic identity lies in its Christian roots and in the perpetuation of Christian privilege, as having burst upon the scene to accompany and facilitate the rise of [the former president]. But as Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry explain in The Flag and the Cross, Christian nationalism—white Christian nationalism, to be more accurate, since the ideology has no place for nonwhites—is “one of the oldest and most powerful currents in American politics.” They trace it back to the New England Puritans’ wars against the indigenous groups who dared to stand in the way of the claim by self-described chosen people to their new Promised Land, and follow it through the Lost Cause of a post–Civil War South destined to “rise again”—a Christological narrative of crucifixion and redemption “crucial to understanding contemporary claims of Christian victimhood and vengeance among white Christian nationalists.” The drive for western expansion, aptly known as Manifest Destiny, was widely understood as part of a divine plan handed to those who would “civilize” an entire continent.

According to a recent Pew Research poll, 60 percent of Americans believe the country was founded to be a Christian nation, and nearly half (including 81 percent of white evangelicals) think it should be one today. Whether that has changed over the course of US history is beside the point: what’s new is the contemporary political and social salience of Christian nationalism. As mainline Protestantism has faded, David Hollinger observes in Christianity’s American Fate,

Christianity has become an instrument for the most politically, culturally, and theologically reactionary Americans. White evangelical Protestants were an indispensable foundation for [the previous] presidency and have become the core of the Republican Party’s electoral strength. They are the most conspicuous advocates of “Christian nationalism.”…Most of Christianity’s symbolic capital has been seized by a segment of the population committed to ideas about the Bible, the family, and civics that most other Americans reject.

How did this happen? [The authors] agree that the answer lies in white evangelicals’ response to the profound cultural changes the country experienced during the second half of the twentieth century. That may sound obvious, but with varied approaches, these … books offer insights that are both illuminating and alarming.

The Flag and the Cross deals most directly with white Christian nationalism as a political force. The authors are sociologists…. Their conclusions are based largely on data from surveys they devised and conducted from 2019 through 2021. At the heart of their analysis is a “Christian nationalism scale” based on respondents’ level of agreement with seven statements that include “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan” and “The federal government should advocate Christian values.”

This scale is one axis on a series of charts showing how Christian nationalist beliefs correlate with attitudes about life in today’s United States. For example, Gorski and Perry asked people to estimate “how much discrimination” whites and Blacks would experience in the coming year. Black respondents, no matter where they fell on the Christian nationalism scale, offered similar predictions: low for whites and high for Blacks. For white respondents, the results were dramatically different: the higher on the Christian nationalist scale they were, the greater their expectation of antiwhite discrimination and a correspondingly lower expectation of discrimination against Blacks. “White Christian nationalists sincerely believe that whites and Christians are the most persecuted groups in America,” the authors conclude. This is a belief, they emphasize, with political consequences: “White Christian nationalism is a ‘deep story’ about America’s past and a vision of its future. It includes cherished assumptions about what America was and is, but also what it should be.”

The data also demonstrate the sometimes surprising results of the merging of religious and political identities. To take one example: nearly 80 percent of white evangelicals adhere to an “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution—the belief that the Constitution must be interpreted according to how its framers’ words would have been understood in their time, which David Cole in these pages recently called a “charade.”

Why nonlawyers should have any fixed notion of how to interpret the Constitution might seem puzzling, but the data explain it. Seventy percent of white evangelicals believe the Constitution to be divinely inspired; constitutional and biblical literalism thus go hand in hand. This finding helps illuminate why obeisance to “originalism” has been demanded of Republican judicial nominees ever since this distinctly unoriginal doctrine was invented during the Reagan era. The current Supreme Court majority used it (inconsistently) to justify its reasoning in last year’s abortion and Second Amendment decisions.

Gorski and Perry offer a portrait of the Tea Party movement—which dominated Republican politics during the early Obama years with a platform of tax cuts, “liberty,” and opposition to the Affordable Care Act—to show that when religious and political identities merge, politics takes precedence. Of those who identified with the Tea Party, which reached its peak in 2011–2012 and has now been largely subsumed into [the] MAGA movement, more than half believe that America “is currently and has always been a Christian nation.” Yet on measures of individual religious behavior such as church attendance, this group scored notably lower than other elements of the religious right. “In other words, the myth of a Christian nation was far more important to them than Christianity itself,” the authors observe. “‘Christian’ instead functions as a cultural identity marker, one that separates ‘us’ from ‘them.’”

And who are “them”? They are “outsiders who wish to take what’s rightfully ours,” whether by asserting rights to equal citizenship, arriving from a foreign country, impugning the country’s history, or just voting. “Christian nationalism is the strongest predictor that white Americans believe we already make it too easy to vote in this country,” Gorski and Perry find. It may seem simplistic to interpret Republican hysteria over voter “fraud” as a dog whistle about too many of the wrong people voting, yet it’s nearly impossible to interpret it any other way.

The Flag and the Cross deciphers other white Christian nationalist beliefs in which race is deeply embedded in a way that is thoroughly obscure to outsiders. With echoes of the Tea Party movement, half the members of which identified as evangelical, these include a fervent belief in free market capitalism and a deep suspicion of anything that might lead to “collectivism.” As Gorski and Perry explain it, this economic view “presumes that one’s lot in life is a result of one’s personal choices—and only those choices. Historical and social contexts are irrelevant,” meaning among other things that the legacy of slavery has no claim on the privileges of whites, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a danger to the country’s authentic identity. In a 2021 survey, the authors asked people to identify the groups or ideas they found most threatening. The response given by those who scored highest on the white Christian nationalism scale was unexpected: they saw the greatest threat as coming not from atheists or Muslims but from “socialists.”

[The previous president] understands the dog-whistle power of “socialism.” At [a rally for evangelicals] in January 2020, he warned that “the extreme left in America is trying to replace religion with government and replace God with socialism.” He promised the crowd that “America will never be a socialist country, ever,” because “America was not built by religion-hating socialists.” The union of politics and religion was complete. Almost exactly a year later, insurrectionists festooned with Christian nationalist symbols stormed the Capitol.