Relocations: The rise of Christian Nationalism

An image from the cover of the report “Christian Nationalism and the January 6, 2021, Insurrection,” a joint project of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).
February 2, 2023

Some 38% of Americans want the U.S. officially declared a ‘Christian Nation’

By Herbert Rothschild

The term “white privilege” has significant currency now, and many of us are familiar with writings and workshops that address it. Not so with “Christian privilege,” a term I think I just coined. Just as white supremacist movements have regained strength recently in response to serious erosion of white privilege since the 1960s, a parallel movement to protect Christian privilege has occurred for the same reason. It’s come to be called Christian nationalism.

Herbert Rothschild

We may think that thorough-going church-state separation has existed for a long time in the U.S. Not so. A main reason is that the Bill of Rights originally applied to the federal government but not to the states. Only in 1925, in Gitlow v. New York, did the U.S. Supreme Court begin to use the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to require the states to protect First Amendment freedoms, and it wasn’t until 1947, in Everson v. Board of Education, that the court “incorporated” separation of church and state into the 14th Amendment.  

Prior to Everson, how much separation there was varied widely from state to state. Amazingly, Maryland maintained a religious test oath for public office up until 1961. But it was state financial support of religious schools that was the most widespread entanglement of church and state. In response, during the 1870s, powerful Rep. James G. Blaine of Maine introduced the following bill: “No state shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any state for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor (sic), nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect, nor shall any money so raised or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations.” Blaine’s bill passed the House but narrowly lost in the Senate. Nonetheless, he was able to make such a prohibition a requirement of any state seeking to join the Union going forward, and many other states adopted such language by choice.

Which is not to say that religion didn’t pervade the public schools themselves. Prayers, Bible readings, Christmas decorations and pageants were commonplace when I was growing up. What changed these practices and the popular assumption about American identity that undergirded them were the U.S. Supreme Court cases Engel v. Vitale in 1962, which banned officially mandated/led prayers in the public schools, and Abington v. Schempp in 1963, which banned officially mandated/led Bible readings.

The erosion of Christian privilege and the concomitant perception of Christian persecution can be dated from those decisions. “Put prayer back in our schools” was a conservative mantra in the 1960s. Because these two decisions coincided with the civil rights movement, inevitably the two upheavals got fused in many minds. Alabama Rep. George Andrews commented, “They put the Negroes in the schools and now they’ve driven God out.”

That connection between white grievance and Christian grievance is strong, especially among fundamentalist Protestants. According to Politico, a May 2022 poll found that “White respondents who say that members of their race have faced more discrimination than others are most likely to embrace a Christian America. Roughly 59% of all Americans who say white people have been discriminated against … favor declaring the U.S. a Christian nation, compared to 38% of all Americans.”

Endorsing interpretations of the First Amendment that deny the seriousness of our Founders’ commitment to church-state separation, Christian Nationalists want an explicit acknowledgement of our nation’s Christian identity. Since there is no platform common to adherents of this understanding, how much state aid they want varies. The most pervasive desire in this regard is to allow tax money to fund religious schools in some way, such as through voucher programs.

That struggle is a replay of an old one, but now with a more sympathetic U.S. Supreme Court refereeing it. Newer and more threatening to democracy is the belief that “real Americans” are Christian Americans. It’s part of the larger proto-fascist demand that our country be defined, not by its sharable history, values and founding documents, but by the “folk” versus the “aliens.” Further, many of the movement’s adherents, believing that they are in a holy war to save America, are willing to go beyond the boundaries of licit political behavior.

Bradley Onishi, author of the recently published “Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism — and What Comes Next,” put it this way: “What set in during 2016 — and has remained with us ever since — is militant rhetoric that says, ‘It’s now all-out warfare.’ What I’ve seen — and what I’ve documented with my colleague Matt Taylor — is an exponential rise in the rhetoric of spiritual warfare. You have pastors who have influence over hundreds of thousands of people saying, ‘It is time to get your swords bloody, it is time to realize you’re in the battle for your life, it is time to realize that the demons controlling the Democratic Party, the deep state and the United States government will not stop until they have rooted out God from this country.’”

So it was that Christian nationalists were involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection. This week, MSNBC opinion columnist Sarah Posner faulted the House Jan. 6 Committee for grossly underplaying in its final report the role of Christian nationalists. She made her case from documents the committee itself released. I commend her piece to you.

There’s been pushback by many mainstream Christian leaders against this distortion of both church and state. If you are a member of a Christian congregation, you may want to get acquainted with Christians Against Christian Nationalism, formed four years ago by the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty.

Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Email Rothschild at

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Email him at

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