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Perspective: The shadow side of the fight against white Christian nationalism

By contorting definitions of what constitutes a threat to America, we are wrongly defaming many good people

SHARE Perspective: The shadow side of the fight against white Christian nationalism

Michelle Budge, Deseret News

When something brand new starts to be discussed as “the great threat” to America, we should pay attention. Lately, we’ve all seen an uptick in commentary about “white Christian nationalism” in that space.

And there are good reasons for that. Bad things happen when partisan passion leads to fusing religion and politics, casting ideological opponents as dangerous enemies, and advancing rhetoric driven by anger and fever. This is why David French recently wrote that Christian nationalism is “not a model of national renewal. It’s a blueprint for corruption, brutality, and oppression.” 

But this is clearly not limited to the political right.

Especially since Joe Biden’s now infamous speech in Philadelphia, in which he excoriated Donald Trump supporters, many Republicans have been quick to point out that aggressive and demonizing rhetoric shows up plentifully on the left. That’s why “white Christian nationalist” seems a fitting parallel to “social justice warrior” on the left — two ideological zealots bent on winning their respective crusades against the dark side by any means possible.

Admitting this could be a starting point for a more productive conversation about threats to democracy. But tribal warfare seems to demand something more than nuance. When yet another article on the topic appeared recently in The New York Times, entitled “The Twin Threats to American Democracy,” my colleague Christopher Cunningham asked me, “would I be too hopeful in imagining one of the threats comes from the left?” (The answer is yes.)

Acknowledging positive intent and a need to grow (on both sides) doesn’t spike the dopamine quite like dramatic portrayals of the “great threat” to American democracy coming solely from the right (or the left). And that’s where some of the more serious concerns about this newly urgent fight against “white Christian nationalism” deserve more attention. The rhetoric around this growing threat seems to be expanding its borders even faster than “racist” or “bigot” did before it. 

This isn’t our first rodeo with the power of rapid definitional expansions, of course. Over the past decade, we’ve seen “hater” and “bigot” attached to people who are overtly hostile or threatening to LGBTQ folks as well as those who simply believe in traditional views of marriage. Similar expansions have happened with other words.

Whatever threat there may be in aggressive and demonizing political rhetoric, this represents another, less obvious threat of sweeping up lots of good people in a narrow and dangerous definitional scope and calling them bad. Really bad. As in “extremist” bad, and “threat to American democracy” bad. 

To be clear, not everyone is jumping on the expanding definition bandwagon. Most mainstream analyses of white Christian nationalism tend to have at least some qualification.

John Blake asked on CNN, “Does this mean that any white Christian who salutes the flag and says they love their country is a Christian nationalist? No, not at all.” And Gary Abernathy reminded people in The Washington Post that “for most Christians, God’s hand on America is a comfort, not a weapon.”  

But for every paragraph that makes these crucial distinctions, there seems to be 99 others that blur them — or race beyond them. That includes our own president’s words in Philadelphia about an “extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic.” In response to that speech, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens raised concern that Biden cast a “net so wide” that it takes up Proud Boys and “every faithful Catholic or evangelical Christian whose deeply held moral convictions bring them to oppose legalized abortion” (and support traditional marriage), thus treating “tens of millions of Americans as the enemy within.”

Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post has likewise taken to suggesting that “the GOP is not a political party anymore,” but rather “a movement dedicated to imposing white Christian nationalism.” As if taking over the Republican Party wasn’t bad enough, others have suggested the movement has taken over Christendom as a whole. Historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez was recently quoted as saying that ideas associated with Christian nationalism have become so widespread that “any individual pastor or Christian leader who tries to turn the tide and say, ‘Let’s look again at Jesus and scripture,’ are going to be tossed aside.”

I believe the insistent expansion and increasing blurring of definitional boundaries is an ominous sign, one that portends prophesied persecution on the horizon. 

The wide net could ultimately assign the white Christian nationalist label to anyone that loves God and America a little too much, a little too loudly, a little too publicly. Does that include you? 

And what about anyone who preaches that America’s departure from God’s teachings is at the root of the nation’s decay? It’s not hard to see how any such evangelical zeal could be labeled as part of the larger, amorphous white Christian nationalist threat.  

In this sense, the rhetoric becomes just another more potent version of the argument that “religion is ultimately just causing more suffering in the world.” 

All this underscores the crucial need to differentiate between what is an actual threat, and what is not — and encourage others to do the same. That needs to include discerning the difference between at least the following:

  • A healthy influence and role for people of faith in the public square, versus a total fusion of religion and politics.
  • A healthy place for legitimate concerns and honest questions in our public conversations, versus a demonization of groups who see the world differently than we do.
  • Those (of any political party) insistent upon preserving norms of truth seeking, respectful engagement and democratic norms, versus those who aren’t.  

Clarity starts with us. No, not everyone who disagrees with you is bent on the destruction of America, democracy or Christianity, so don’t believe it when someone tells you that, no matter how no matter how passionate and persuasive they are.

Most people are doing the best they can and really do want the best for our country, even if they disagree deeply with us. That may not fire up the dopamine in our brains quite so much.

But it’s the truth.

Jacob Hess is the editor of Public Square Magazine and served on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation. He has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since the publication of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, Hess also authored “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”