The rise of Christian nationalism is a worldwide problem. In the United States, it begins with the idea that God chose America, that we as a nation are especially blessed. Because we have been chosen, we are exceptional when compared to other countries and as a result have a sacred mission to bring our values to the rest of the world.
With regard to domestic politics, the goal is to have government policies reflect Christian values. These values include the importance of opening public schools with prayer and Bible reading, strict anti-abortion laws, the display of Christian symbols on the public square, and religious freedom from government interference. In this latter case, it is among other things about the right of store owners, for religious reasons, to deny customers the right to use their store. White Christian nationals work politically to create a nation that is Christian, white, heterosexual, native born, English spoken, and patriarchal.
In terms of numbers, these proclaimed Christians represent a minority of U.S. citizens. The problem is that they have a passionate interest in governing; and, because they are a minority, they have employed anti-democratic means to achieve their goals. Politics is war, and many of the most extreme members of the movement are now talking of the need to use violence to achieve their aims. As Sarah Palin recently was quoted as saying: "We need to rise up and take our country back." Credible threats of violence are being made daily against politicians standing up to these anti-democratic forces, forcing them to use their own hard-earned money to protect themselves and their families. I never thought in my lifetime the fundamental legitimacy of American political institutions would come under challenge, but such a challenge is happening before our very eyes. It's a dangerous time for democratic rule in America.
White evangelical Christians make up an important part of the base of the Republican party. Because the party has a decided disadvantage when it comes to registered voters, Republicans have done everything in their power to restrict voting among minorities and the young. The problems for them began in the 1960s with the passage of two voting rights acts by Congress. The 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed racial discrimination for voting. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 authorized the Department of Justice to supervise voting registration and districting. The National Voter Registration Act was passed in 1993 which made it far easier for voters to register. As a result of these voting rights acts, Republicans started losing elections. From a white evangelical perspective, this meant that white males could no longer dominate government decision making. Republicans have responded to this looming threat in two ways.
In 2013, the Supreme Court handed down Shelby County v. Holder which gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act by ending Department of Justice supervision of elections. Since then 29 states have passed laws restricting the right to vote. There is a bill currently before Congress submitted by House Republicans which would limit mail-in and drop boxes and make it illegal to bring food or water to those waiting in line to vote.
The second response of Republican candidates who lose an election is to claim voter fraud and the idea that the election was stolen. Of course, the best example of this practice is Trump's "Big Lie" that he did in fact win the 2020 Presidential election and that Biden Democrats stole it from him. He persists with this lie despite losing more than 60 legal cases challenging the results. The long-term survival of democratic government is placed in grave jeopardy when the sanctity of the election process is questioned.
Because our politics have become tribal, we have developed what Kellyanne Conway, a senior Trump aide during his White House years, describes as alternative facts. Each tribe has their own set of facts to explain a political event. A good example is President Biden's response to the tragic wildfires that recently swept through Maui Hawaii on August 8 and 9 of this year.
On August 9th President Biden issued a touching statement to console the family members of victims and to praise firefighters and first responders for their heroic efforts to deal with the problem. On August 21st the President and Mrs. Biden visited the devastated area in person. More importantly, Biden ordered federal aid be directed to support local efforts. He further ordered all relevant federal government agencies to offer assistance. This led FEMA to provide temporary shelter and food, the Small Business Administration to make low interest loans to help small businesses get back on their feet, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra declared a health emergency making it easier for victims to receive health care, the Army Corps of Engineers was sent to clear roads, the EPA was sent to remove toxic waste, the U.S. Forest Service was sent to help put out the fires, and the Department of Defense was ordered to help move supplies where needed. These actions of the federal government followed almost immediately when news broke of the horrible tragedy.
When the President switched his focus to a pre-scheduled summit at Camp David with South Korean and Japanese leaders, Republicans created an alternative narrative. They blasted the President for doing nothing to help with the Hawaiian tragedy. Representative James Comer, Republican from Kentucky and chair of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, announced that he would lead an investigation into Biden's response in an effort to further this alternative narrative. Far right members of the House of Representatives falsely claimed that the President was funding the war in Ukraine at the expense of domestic emergencies like the Maui fires. The central problem here is that democracy can't exist unless it is possible to have a healthy debate over agreed upon facts.
Recently Republicans have begun attacking the legitimacy of several institutions of the federal government. Because the FBI and the Department of Justice have been prosecuting participants of the January 6th insurrection, Republicans are trying to reduce funding for these agencies. They are also attacking the rule of law with similar efforts to defund those prosecuting former President Trump for his alleged crimes while in office.
In an unprecedented move, the George W. Bush Institute on September 6th of this year along with twelve other presidential foundations issued a joint statement expressing their concern for the health of American democracy. The statement called on Americans to engage in politics with civility, respecting the rule of law and the integrity of American institutions. It called on all Americans to uphold safe, secure, and assessable elections. The statement was extraordinary because of the long tradition of ex-presidents to refrain from commenting on politics.
This anti-democratic agenda is driven by a passion fueled by anger and hatred stemming from what evangelicals believe to be a fifty-year attack on everything they hold dear. Liberal elites from government, science, large corporations, higher education are all to blame. In order to understand how it might be possible to heal this gigantic cultural divide, it is necessary to examine what is causing these grievances and sense of victimization.
Let's begin with science. Darwin's theory of evolution has been particularly difficult for evangelicals because it directly challenged the historical validity of the two creation stories in Genesis. The inerrant truth of scripture is perhaps the most central belief making up their religious identity. This situation was made so much worse by the Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik, the first satellite to fly into space, in 1957. As a result, the U.S. government panicked seeing it as a major threat to national security which led to a huge investment in public education. The focus of the investment was on the teaching of science. Textbooks were rewritten to reflect Darwin's theory, and creation science which focuses on God's central role in the creation of the universe and human beings was marginalized. Evangelical anger exploded. It didn't help that other findings from science as well as mainline biblical scholarship were also challenging the inerrant truth of scripture.
During the fifties and sixties there were several Supreme Court decisions that created a passionate hatred of federal government intrusion in their lives. With Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954, racial segregation in public schools was outlawed. Evangelicals viewed this decision as huge government overreach. Engle v. Vitale (1962) outlawed school prayer, and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) made it illegal to begin the school day with Bible reading. For evangelicals, these two decisions were seen as an attack on Christianity and a grave violation of their religious freedom which caused deep resentment. Finally, 1973 brought Roe v. Wade which gave Constitutional protection for a woman's right to an abortion. The right to life movement was born.
A similar challenge was presented by the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution which would ban discrimination based on gender. The amendment was seen as an important tool to end discrimination against women. Although it was never ratified, it became a symbol of the women's movement. Evangelicals deeply resented this movement because it violated the spirit of the Bible which made clear that women were subservient to men. The traditional family home led by the man of the house was under attack. The movement also created a climate of opinion that enabled women to successfully compete against men for jobs.
In his State of the Union address on January 8, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson asked Congress to pass the Economic Opportunity Act establishing the Office of Economic Opportunity which was designed to administer federal funds to reduce poverty. With this speech, Johnson launched his War on Poverty. Eventually forty programs and a huge federal investment in dealing with the problems of poverty became a part of the War on Poverty. Many white evangelicals viewed this effort as godless socialism, the taking of their money and giving it to undeserving minorities.
The period following World War 11 was marked by rapid globalization and the lowering of trade barriers between nations. I was a big advocate for this new world order. I told my International Relations students that an interdependent economic world would make for a far more peaceful one. What I failed to see, along with many others, was that this trend would have a devastating impact on middle class incomes.
Evangelicalism is a populist religion of the working class. As industrial plants moved overseas, wages for working class people suffered and unemployment rose. The standard of living for working class people has stagnated over the last twenty-five years while incomes for the top ten percent of the population have skyrocketed. Evangelicals came to bitterly resent corporate and government elites for pushing this trend toward globalization.
Finally, white evangelicals are threatened by immigration and demographic change. The immigration of nonwhites into the country is seen as a conspiracy by Democrat politicians to marginalize them. The fact that whites will soon no longer makeup a majority of the population is terrifying. White Christian nationalists are convinced that a multi-racial democracy will be at their expense.
For many years I have held Jerry Falwell responsible for triggering the cultural wars with the launch of the Moral Majority in 1979. This organization was designed to organize evangelicals to wage holy war against godless secular humanism. An honest reading of the several points made above suggests a different conclusion. The Moral Majority did not launch the culture wars, but rather this movement came about as a response to what evangelicals perceived as a war that was launched against them.
This is an important point because it suggests that the liberal coastal elites evangelicals loathe bear some responsibility for the toxic condition of our current politics. I'm a sixties guy. I approve of all the tumultuous change that took place in the sixties. The Supreme Court justices of that period are my heroes. I applauded Johnson's anti-poverty program back then and have called for a similar one today. I had a privileged job as a university professor. All these changes supported my values. I was a winner with regard to these culture wars. I wasn't fighting a defensive battle to preserve my identity. My worldview was not shattered, my religious beliefs were not called into question, my job was not sent overseas. Seeing white evangelicals as victims and creating some empathy for them is important for two reasons.
First, we can avoid a mistake of the past in which no attention was paid to the effect of globalization on working class people. Policies to fight climate change are going to destroy the coal industry. What will happen to unemployed coal miners as a result? They are innocent victims. Many additional innocent victims will be created as artificial intelligence along with other digital innovations work their way through the economy all of which are designed to increase productivity. These new technologies will create job loss.
The Biden administration seems to understand this problem. "Bidenomics," as the President is proud to proclaim, is designed to build the economy from the middle class out and the bottom up. It is designed to educate and empower American workers, raise their wages, strengthen the social safety net, help small businesses, and bring manufacturing home. Several important legislative acts were passed in the last two years to implement this vision—the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, the Inflation Reduction Act with its focus on combating climate change, and the Chips and Science Act are among those pieces of legislation. It's a good start because it will give working class people a stake in the system. It's easier to treat minorities with civility and women with respect when you have a good job and feel good about yourself.
The second reason for acquiring empathy for working class evangelicals is that we need to spend massive amounts of money to improve education at all levels. Public education has declined precipitously in the last twenty-five years. It's a conclusion that most well-meaning people agree with. The failure of our schools is particularly damaging for the children from working class families because without a good education they stand little chance of improving their situation and achieving the American dream. Lifting them up will be expensive, but they are our neighbors and they are in need.
Finally, if America is to succeed as a multiracial democracy, integration is a key component for success. All facets of society need to be integrated—schools, neighborhoods, places of work, clubs, churches. Why? Because integration works.
My grandson Landon has grown up in white neighborhoods and has attended predominately white schools. Five years ago his parents discovered he is a gifted basketball player with a healthy ambition to succeed. This has led them to sign him up to play in several leagues outside of school. One unintended consequence of his participation in these leagues is his new black friends. He now has many of them; and they are good friends, spend the night with friends. Landon is a good Christian, who because of his many friends from different backgrounds will never be attracted to embrace white Christian nationalism.
There may be other solutions to the problems posed by white Christian nationalism; however, as a Christian myself, it seems quite evident that the best approach to taming their ranks is to apply the teachings of Jesus to the world of twenty-first century America. The central image of Jesus' teachings is that of bringing the kingdom of God to earth. This would happen when politics was based on love for neighbor, when people reached out to reconcile with their enemy, when the last became first. Many of those who are last at this time in twenty-first century America are working class evangelicals who accept in varying degrees the toxic ideology of white Christian nationalism. While we can reject most of their values, we cannot reject them as human beings, as fellow travelers on this precious planet. As the real victors of the culture wars over the last fifty years, we need to show a little magnanimity by searching for areas of common ground. In doing so, we need to make an honest effort to listen to their grievances and to enact policies to alleviate them so that they might gain a real stake in the new world that is emerging in the twenty-first century. Such a stake will only be achieved when liberal elites decide to surrender some of their enormous wealth so that the losers of the last fifty years can finally join the party.