How to answer when Christian nationalists embrace the label as a badge of honor

Rather than being cowed by criticism, Christian nationalists are doubling down on their views.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., answers questions during a panel discussion at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Feb. 26, 2022, in Orlando, Florida. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

(RNS) — Last week, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia responded to those who had called her a “Christian nationalist.” Rather than disavow the term, however, she took it as a badge of honor. “I am being attacked by the godless left because I said I’m a proud Christian Nationalist,” she wrote on Twitter. “These evil people are even calling me a Nazi because I proudly love my country and my God.”

Greene’s characterization of her critics as “the godless left,” of course, ignores the broad swath of Christians who condemn Christian nationalism. The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, to pick one group, has run the Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign since 2019, with endorsers from several large denominations.

Conservatives have long shown their skill at turning hot-button words to their advantage — just look at how they’ve made “woke” a negative tag. It’s concerning but not surprising that Christian nationalist has been reconfigured to assign themselves in-group status. 

Conservative politicians and media personalities have effectively appropriated and redefined the use of words before — look at how Donald Trump’s supporters happily “owned the libs” by adopting “deplorables,” or how their use of “woke” and “cancel culture” has sapped the potency from those terms, turning them into symbols of in-group status. Greene has even begun selling “Proud Christian Nationalist” T-shirts.

RELATED: What the history of ‘Judeo-Christian’ can teach us about fighting Christian nationalism

This strategy attempts to make warnings about Christian nationalism seem overheated. But Christian nationalism is rooted in developed, internally coherent theologies such as Seven Mountains Dominionism and Christian Reconstruction and present in the cultural mores of the Lost Cause mythology. Its mythic quality makes it evocative and does not require many details to provoke deep emotional responses — which is all the more reason to consider it closely.

I recently reached out to several experts on Christian nationalism to ask how to combat the movement after its adherents have proudly adopted the term. 

Christians Against Christian Nationalism logo. Courtesy image

Christians Against Christian Nationalism logo. Courtesy image

Samuel L. Perry, a sociologist of religion and co-author of two books on Christian nationalism, responded by pointing out that culture warriors react to their opponents by embracing everything their critics hate.

“If they say climate change threatens us all, we should dismantle the leftist Environmental Protection Agency,” Perry wrote. “If they think everyone should get COVID vaccines, we should all take Ivermectin instead. If they demand gun control, we should raffle AR-15s at our church. And if they think Christian nationalism is unamerican and harmful, we should openly embrace the identity.”

If liberal outsiders warn about the dangers of Christian nationalism, in other words, they’ll double down. “What’s needed is insiders within the conservative Christian camp to call this phenomenon out,” Perry said. “It shouldn’t become normalized. It should shock and offend. It should be confronted.” If they don’t, he said, “this will go down to the pews.”

“They are essentially saying: ‘Yes, I am a Christian nationalist. So what? What is so bad about that?'” said Bradley Onishi, a religious studies professor at Skidmore College and co-host of the podcast “Straight White American Jesus.”

Opponents of Christian nationalism need to spell out its underlying assumptions, as Onishi does. “The argument is an assertion of Christian supremacy. They want a country where Christians are privileged, where their rights are given priority, and where the laws and the government work in tandem with churches.”

What they are asking for is a new, anti-constitutional regime that ignores freedom of religion, freedom from religion and the separation of church and state. “Many Christians, almost all non-Christian religious Americans, and certainly non-religious Americans are not in favor of this type of move,” Onishi said.

Katherine Stewart, author of the 2020 book “The Power Worshippers,” said Greene’s attempt to reduce the term to a description of people who happen to be Christian and have patriotic sentiments is incorrect. “The term ‘Christian nationalism’ is not a word game,” said Stewart. “It is descriptive of an ideology as well as a political movement engaged in an organized quest for power.”

Besides showing how this movement attempts to use “the power of government to impose its vision of society at the expense of individual rights and democracy itself,” Stewart recommended connecting the American phenomenon to aligned movements abroad. “I used the term ‘religious nationalism’ in the subtitle of my book to make clear its similarities with other forms of religious nationalism around the world.”

In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, a man holds a Bible as Trump supporters gather outside the Capitol in Washington. The Christian imagery and rhetoric on view during the Capitol insurrection are sparking renewed debate about the societal effects of melding Christian faith with an exclusionary breed of nationalism. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, a man holds a Bible as Trump supporters gather outside the Capitol in Washington. The Christian imagery and rhetoric on view during the Capitol insurrection are sparking renewed debate about the societal effects of melding Christian faith with an exclusionary breed of nationalism. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Ex-evangelical commentator Chrissy Stroop was undeterred by Christian nationalists’ embrace of the term. “I don’t think that … is going to do them any favors in the public sphere,” Stroop said. “If our goal is to inform the broader public that this group of people are anti-pluralist and anti-democratic, I don’t think this new development hinders us in the slightest. It might even help.”

Efforts to morally condemn conservative positions, of course, have been in no short supply. Lawmakers, pastors and people in all walks of life regularly repudiate Christian nationalist ideologies as un-American and un-Christlike — but they should not do so with the expectation that it will remain taboo. Seven years of Trumpism have effectively inoculated shame as a social deterrent.

As I’ve written elsewhere, we have belatedly reached a point where white evangelicalism is no longer the default representation of “Christian” in the media. But now we find ourselves at a far more precarious place, thanks to recent Supreme Court decisions and the lock hold that conservatives have managed to gain in the Senate, where we are teetering toward Christian nationalist minority rule.

RELATED: The activist behind opposition to the separation of church and state

Alternatives to Christian nationalism must be offered from within Christian communities and interfaith coalitions in which Christians participate. Such efforts may feed the Christian nationalist persecution complex, but it will do much to prevent the prosecution of the Christian nationalist agenda.

Battles over language are just one aspect of the struggle against Christian nationalism. Christian nationalists and Christo-fascists won’t care if people ridicule their beliefs. They have blessed assurance that ridicule will allow them to out-fundraise and out-organize their opponents and impose their will upon the country, hearts and minds be damned.

(Blake Chastain is host of the podcasts “Exvangelical” and “Powers & Principalities” and writer of “The Post-Evangelical Post” newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @brchastain. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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