the us bill of rights as proposed in 1789. in this version, what would become the first amendment (which separates church and state) is listed as ‘article the third’.

A judge citing the Bible and referring to God dozens of times in a court decision that limits reproductive health care. A nonbinary teenager dead after months of bullying in a state where public officials are advancing anti-LGBTQ+ policies. Public school boards agreeing to hire religious chaplains in place of mental health counsellors. A nationally televised prayer service sponsored by members of Congress, attended by the President of the United States, and held in the seat of American government. 

All these incidents happened recently and within the space of about a month in different locations across the United States. They may seem unrelated, but all serve as potent examples of how white Christian Nationalism is ascendant in the U.S.

White Christian Nationalism is a political ideology and cultural framework rooted in the dangerous belief that America is—and must remain—a Christian nation founded for its white Christian inhabitants, and that our laws and policies must codify that privilege. Christian Nationalists deny the separation of church and state promised by the U.S. Constitution. They oppose equality for Black and Brown people, women, LGBTQ+ people, religious minorities, and the nonreligious because their goal is to retain traditional power structures and turn back America’s steady progress toward her goal of equality. Through a well-funded shadow network of organizations, allied politicians and judges, and other political power brokers, Christian Nationalists are marshalling the power of the state to impose their beliefs on all Americans.

Take reproductive freedom. In February, the Alabama Supreme Court issued a theology-infused opinion that human life begins at conception and therefore frozen embryos harvested for in vitro fertilization should have the same legal rights as living, breathing children. The court’s chief justice went a step further by writing a 22-page concurring opinion in which he cited the Bible five times and mentioned God or “the creator” nearly 50 times.

It was far from the first time that public officials have cited religion to justify the restriction of reproductive rights. In Missouri, legislators repeatedly voiced their religious beliefs when they passed the state’s current abortion ban; they even wrote religion into the law itself, proclaiming, ‘Almighty God is the author of life.’ My organization, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, along with the National Women’s Law Center, is in court on behalf of 14 clergy from seven different faith denominations challenging Missouri’s ban, which went into effect when the U.S. Supreme Court’s ultra-conservative bloc abolished the nationwide right to abortion in 2022. During the oral argument before the Supreme Court in that case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor called out Mississippi lawmakers’ religious impetus for banning abortion: ‘How is your interest anything but a religious view?’

Christian Nationalism is also behind much of the vile persecution of LGBTQ+ people. Americans United and its allies have demanded the ouster of a religious extremist state politician who is pushing his anti-LGBTQ+, Christian Nationalist policies to the extreme. Ryan Walters, the superintendent of public instruction for Oklahoma, is on a crusade to infuse religion into the state’s public schools, from personally praying to a classroom of elementary school students to writing a suggested prayer for all of the state’s schools to supporting the creation of what would be the nation’s first religious public school (Americans United is also challenging that school in court).

Christian Nationalists are on a crusade to impose their religious beliefs on public school students even as they continue to divert ever more public funding to private religious schools.

Walters also advocates the teaching of a whitewashed version of American history and demonizes LGBTQ+ people. It was in this toxic atmosphere that a 16-year-old nonbinary student named Nex Benedict died. Nex, who was of Native American heritage, died on 8 February after being beaten in their Oklahoma high school restroom by other students. This came after months of bullying. Nex’s death was ruled a suicide; state and federal officials continue to investigate the circumstances around their death. But what is clear is that Walters created the environment that drove this child—whom he was supposed to protect—to a place of hopelessness and despair. After Nex’s death, Walters doubled down on his anti-trans rhetoric: In a New York Times interview, he said: ‘There’s not multiple genders. There’s two. That’s how God created us.’

The attack on public schools and students that Walters is waging in Oklahoma is a microcosm of what we are seeing across the country. Christian Nationalists are on a crusade to impose their religious beliefs on public school students even as they continue to divert ever more public funding to private religious schools. Right now, Americans United is tracking more than 1,300 bills in states across the country that impact church-state separation; nearly half of them involve public education.

Following in the path of Texas, at least 14 state legislatures have proposed bills that would allow public schools to replace qualified counsellors with religious chaplains. Lawmakers in various states have also proposed bills that would require public school classrooms to display the Ten Commandments, allow public school teachers to pray in front of and even with students, and allow for the teaching of the Bible or intelligent design creationism in public schools. At the same time, religious extremists are advancing schemes that force taxpayers to fund tuition at private, religious schools that can indoctrinate and discriminate; last year alone at least 17 states expanded or created new private school voucher programs.

There are so many other examples I could give of how Christian Nationalism is invading our lives and threatening our rights and freedoms. One vivid example was, while waving the Christian flag and ‘Jesus saves’ banners, Christian Nationalists drove the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on 6 January 2021, as election deniers sought to keep former president Donald Trump in power.

Recent polling by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) shows that about 30% of Americans are adherents to or sympathizers of Christian Nationalism; a majority of Republicans and a supermajority of white evangelical Protestants espouse these views. PRRI also found that Christian Nationalists are more likely to have racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and patriarchal views. And the survey not surprisingly found a correlation between Christian Nationalism and a penchant for personal and political violence and authoritarianism.

This is not the first time the U.S. has experienced a resurgence of Christian Nationalism. In the 1950s amid the Cold War, Christian Nationalists were behind Congress creating the National Prayer Breakfast, adding ‘under God’ to the Pledge of Allegiance that schoolchildren recite every morning, and establishing ‘In God We Trust’ as the national motto. They were also behind the rise of the religious right in the late 1970s and 1980s, as religious conservatives opposed to the desegregation of Christian universities coalesced into an anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ+ rights, anti-feminism political movement.

America’s changing demographics and the fear this is engendering are spurring the current rise in white Christian Nationalism. In 2014, white Christians ceased being the majority in America. As their numbers have declined, the number of religiously unaffiliated people (the ‘nones’) has grown to about 26% of the population, according to PRRI. The U.S. has elected the first Black president and the first multiracial and female vice president. Same-sex couples now have the right to marry nationwide. There have been great strides in the movements for racial justice, women’s rights, and LGBTQ+ equality.

Now we are seeing the backlash: White Christian Nationalists are raging against the dying of their privilege. They were emboldened by Trump, who tapped into their insecurity and gave them unprecedented access to the White House and influence over federal policies. The Trump administration weaponized religious freedom as a license to discriminate in social services, health care, employment, education, and other aspects of American life.

During a 2018 state dinner at the White House with prominent evangelical Christians, Trump bragged: ‘The support you’ve given me has been incredible, but I really don’t feel guilty because I have given you a lot back—just about everything I promised. And, as one of our great pastors just said, ‘Actually, you’ve given us much more, sir, than you’ve promised,’ and I think that’s true in many respects.’

The good news is that America has faced waves of white Christian Nationalism before and battled it back.

Through a shadow network of organizations and political allies working to pack the courts, lobby politicians to rewrite laws, and empower book-banning, curriculum-scrubbing school boards, white Christian Nationalists are wielding outsized power. And they are taking a wrecking ball to the wall that separates church and state. They know church-state separation is the antidote to white Christian Nationalism. They know that this bedrock principle, an American original enshrined in our Constitution, protects freedom and equality for all of us. They know that it is foundational to our democracy. And they know that it is incompatible with their agenda of securing power and privilege for a select few.

The good news is that America has faced waves of white Christian Nationalism before and battled it back. That, combined with the reality that we have the power of the people and the American Constitution on our side, gives me hope for the future. Americans United for Separation of Church and State has been around for 77 years and the organization is thriving. Every day, we are bringing together growing numbers of religious and nonreligious Americans to fight in the courts, in Congress, across state legislatures, and in the public square for freedom without favour and equality without exception. What could be more American than that?

Further reading

Reproductive freedom is religious freedom, by Andrew Seidel and Rachel Laser

Secular conservatives? If only… by Jacques Berlinerblau

Faith Watch, February 2024 and Faith Watch, March 2024, by Daniel James Sharp

1 comment
  1. As a Briton I studied British & American Constitutional law & politics at school 43 years ago before and found it appealing. The Founding Fathers rightly feared religious persecution having experienced it in Britain with its anti-Catholic laws that forced non-Anglicans to marry in Anglican churches, excepting only British Jews who could follow theirnown customs. Elsewhere in Europe Protestants were persecuted, Anabaptists and others faced punitive consequences or death for expressing their religion in public, and atheists faced execution in Britain & many parts of Europe for heresy. The Founding Fathers had the good, common sense, to ensure that America adopted no state religion and was secular for very good reason. Religion + Bigotry + Power = persecution & death for their multiple victims. What is happening in America has been a great concern to me for years, as democracy have been subverted by the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling by SCOTUS as well as judges that are corrupt to the degree of Aileen Cannon, who in the UK would be removed from office. Unfortunately for you that is much harder.

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