Talk of 'Christian nationalism' is getting a lot louder – but what does the term really mean?

According to a May 2022 poll from the University of Maryland, 61% of Republicans favor declaring the United States a Christian nation – even though 57% recognized that it would be unconstitutional. Meanwhile, 31% of all Americans and 49% of Republicans believe “God intended America to be a new promised land where European Christians could create a society that would be an example for the rest of the world,” a recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute found.

Those statistics underscore the influence of a set of ideas called “Christian nationalism,” which has been in the spotlight leading up to November 2022 midterm elections. Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has openly identified as a Christian nationalist and called for the Republican Party to do the same. Others, like Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert and Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, have not claimed that label but have embraced its tenets, such as dismissing the separation of church and state.

Few Americans use the term “Christian nationalist” to describe themselves, but many more have embraced some aspects of this worldview. There is widespread confusion over what the label really means, making it important to clearly explain. My work on how race and religion shape Americans’ attitudes toward government led me to study Christian nationalism, and to co-write a book detailing how it shapes Americans’ views of themselves, their government and their place in the world.

Christian nationalism is more than religiosity and patriotism. It is a worldview that guides how people believe the nation should be structured and who belongs there.

Mission from God

The phenomenon of white Christian nationalism has been studied by historians, sociologists, political scientists scholars of religion and many others. While their definitions may differ, they share certain elements.

Christian nationalism is a religious and political belief system that argues the United States was founded by God to be a Christian nation and to complete God’s vision of the world. In this view, America can be governed only by Christians, and the country’s mission is directed by a divine hand.

In my recent book “The Everyday Crusade: Christian Nationalism in American Politics,” written with fellow political scientists Irfan Nooruddin and Allyson Shortle, we demonstrate that this worldview has existed since the Colonies and played a central role in developing American identity. During the American Revolution, political and religious leaders linked independence from the British as part of God’s plan to set the world right.