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Thomas P. RauschJanuary 05, 2024

In his painful-to-read but important book, The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy, Robert P. Jones traces an attitude of racial entitlement by American whites to the “doctrine of discovery,” the supposed right of Spain and Portugal proclaimed by two 15th-century popes (Nicholas V and Alexander VI) to conquer non-Christian lands and convert their inhabitants. Though Jones fails to mention that some theologians and political theorists rejected these arguments, he shows how the doctrine of discovery influenced the appropriation of Native American lands as the United States spread west.

On March 30, 2023, the Vatican formally repudiated the doctrine of discovery and acknowledged the church’s complicity in the abuses of European colonialism. Cardinal Michael Czerny’s Vatican office also noted that a 1537 bull, “Sublimis Deus,” reaffirmed that Indigenous peoples should not be deprived of their liberty or property and were not to be enslaved. The Vatican also stressed that the 15th-century bulls had never been considered an expression of Catholic faith.

The doctrine of discovery was introduced into U.S. law by Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall and referred to even as late as 2005 by Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a Supreme Court decision rejecting a land claim of the Oneida Nation. It also contributed to the idea of white supremacy.

Jones’s book illustrates his argument by exploring in depth three racially motivated murders and subsequent coverups: the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi (1955), the lynching of three black circus workers on a false rape charge in Duluth (1920) and the Tulsa Race Massacre of as many as 300 victims (1921). Jones notes that the blending of white identity politics with Christianity is called today by social scientists “white Christian nationalism…the worldview behind Trumpism and the ‘Make America Great Again’ movement.”

Today, any challenge to an honest telling of America’s history of racial prejudice and violence is dismissed in many states as “critical race theory.” However, with an important election coming this Fall, white Christian nationalism is emerging as a serious threat to our democracy.

While most of our nation's founders came from a Calvinist background, the most influential of them—those who wrote our constitutional documents—were not Christians.

American roots

Christian nationalism has deep roots in American culture. Evangelical Christians have long used an idealized rereading of history to claim that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. However, while most of the founders came from a Calvinist background that had a narrow vision of a Christian America, the most influential of them—those who wrote our constitutional documents—were not Christians. They were Unitarians or Deists; their concern was not Christianity but religious liberty. Thomas Jefferson, for example, cut from his New Testament with a razor blade any verses dealing with the miraculous or the supernatural. Still, fundamentalist and evangelical Christians have long sought to bring their misunderstanding of American history to political and cultural expression.

The Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century “grew from the womb of the Reformed tradition,” especially in its Presbyterian and Baptist expressions. Its goal was, in the words of the historian Richard T. Hughes in Christian America and the Kingdom of God, “to bring all human culture under the sovereign sway of almighty God and to transform America into the premier outpost of his kingdom.”

In 1864, an evangelical political association proposed an amendment to the Constitution to President Lincoln. The amendment would recognize the United States as a Christian nation, which meant of course a Protestant nation. A similar effort in 1946 sought to amend the Constitution to affirm, “This nation devoutly recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Saviour and Ruler of nations.” White evangelicals long appealed to a highly individualistic doctrine of salvation and certain biblical verses to support white supremacy and Jim Crow laws in the South. Catholics did little to challenge this culture.

Most white evangelicals still vote Republican, though the religious right also includes many Catholics.

The rise of the ‘Religious Right’

American evangelical Christianity embraces a broad spectrum, from ecumenically minded members of the confessional churches to the numerous fundamentalists on the far right. Evangelical leaders like Ron Sider, Jim Wallis and others, including many Black Protestants, have spoken out against Christian nationalism. But even today, many white evangelicals subscribe to a myth of exceptionalism and to a Christian nationalism that sees the nation not just as unique but with a sacred mission to preserve the truths of Christianity and its values.

Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” played into this notion. Robert Neelly Bellah called this America’s civil religion. Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry describe Christian nationalism as a cultural framework that rarely is concerned with instituting policies resembling New Testament ethics; “It includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism.”

Before World War II, most fundamentalists and evangelicals did not participate in politics, preferring to remain separate from the broader culture (though Billy Graham and others worked against the presidential candidacy of the Catholic John F. Kennedy). But fundamentalism experienced a rebirth in the early 1970s when conservative evangelicals began to organize to gain political power. According to two former evangelicals, Randall Balmer and Bradley Onishi, one catalyst for their political engagement was what they perceived as the government’s interference with private religious schools. After the 1971 federal court decision in Green v. Connally, the Internal Revenue Service began denying tax-exempt status to segregated schools, including private Christian academies. One result was the rise of the religious right.

Inspired by Nixon’s appeal to a “silent majority,” the conservative fundamentalists Jerry Falwell Sr. and Paul Weyrich established a political movement in 1979 called the Moral Majority. Calling for the restoration of traditional “family values,” they began to press candidates and officeholders to endorse or sponsor legislation to allow Christian prayers in public schools, ban abortion and same-sex marriage and substitute fundamentalist “creation science” in place of teaching evolution in public schools. As Richard Hughes writes, “They sought to use the political process to undermine measures favorable to diversity and pluralism: the Equal Rights Amendment, gay rights, and even the U.S.-Soviet SALT treaties.”

“[B]y 2004, this fundamentalist-evangelical power bloc effectively controlled the Republican Party, the House of Representatives, and the Senate” and they “were well on their way toward transforming the United States into their version of Christian America,” Hughes notes. Most white evangelicals still vote Republican, though the religious right also includes many Catholics. Then, in 2016, a new Republican presidential candidate appeared: Donald Trump, appealing especially to white evangelicals. He soon held the Republican Party in virtual captivity.

On voting rights, 85 percent of Republicans say that ineligible voters casting ballots is a bigger problem than denying the eligible the right to vote.

Trump and Christian nationalism

In 2016, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. Even more did so in 2020—85 percent of those who frequently attended religious services and 81 percent of those who attended less frequently. According to the Pew Research Center, 63 percent of white Catholics who attended Mass monthly or more often supported Trump, while 36 percent supported Biden. According to a study from the Public Religion Research Institute (P.R.R.I.), the majority of white evangelical Protestants, 61 percent, claim that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, versus 35 percent of white Catholics and 18 percent of the religiously unaffiliated.

Mike Johnson, a relatively inexperienced congressman from Louisiana who was elected speaker of the deeply divided House of Representatives in late October 2023, after three other candidates failed to gain a majority, is a deeply conservative Southern Baptist. Often referred to as “MAGA Mike,” he was a key player in the efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. On his first day as speaker, he claimed that all those in congressional authority had been raised up by God.

On voting rights, 85 percent of Republicans say that ineligible voters casting ballots is a bigger problem than denying the eligible the right to vote; 83 percent of Democrats say the opposite. Some 49 percent of white evangelicals believe that members of “Antifa” were “mostly responsible” for the invasion of the Capitol on Jan. 6, a story spread by Rudy Giuliani and Franklin Graham, and express “robust support” for other conspiracy theories. Worshiping in largely white congregations, they are reluctant to challenge white supremacy or work for racial reconciliation. Their support for gun rights surpasses that of any other religious group. As David Brooks wrote earlier this year, “Evangelicalism used to be a faith; today it’s primarily a political identity.”

The polarization in Congress today is also reflected in our churches, both Protestant and Catholic.

The Kingdom of God

Some scholars have argued that white evangelicals misunderstand the kingdom of God, and that for others, it has little place in their theological imagination. As Scot McKnight has noted, much of evangelicalism focuses not on Jesus and the kingdom of God but on Paul and his doctrine of justification by faith. The former evangelical and speechwriter for George W. Bush, Michael Gerson, makes a similar point. He writes: “Evangelicals often think that being a Christian means the individualistic acceptance of Jesus as their personal Savior. But this is quite different from following the example of Jesus we find in the Gospels.”

Others have tended to politicize the kingdom of God, making it a political rather than a theological reality and conflating it with Christian nationalism. According to Gerson, “Evangelicals broadly confuse the Kingdom of God with a Christian America, preserved by thuggish politicians who promise to prefer their version of Christian rights and enforce Christian values.” John Calvin sought to impose such a vision on Geneva in the 16th century. But the kingdom or reign of God is not a kingdom of this world. It is not a place, but an event, God’s power and saving grace breaking into history through the ministry of Jesus.

A study by the P.R.R.I. released on Feb. 8, 2023, reported that white evangelical Protestants are more supportive of Christian nationalism than any other group surveyed. From a political perspective, these Christian nationalists represent a threat to American democracy, most evident on Jan. 6. Claiming a nonhistorical picture of a Christian America, they have attempted to give it political expression as Christian nationalism. If the kingdom of God is not a kingdom of this world, neither is Christian discipleship without social implications. Jesus called on his disciples to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit the imprisoned.

Catholics, too

Catholics in the United States have not always avoided political extremism. As we have seen, slightly over half of white Catholics supported Trump in 2020, more if they were regularly attending church. Much of this can be attributed to the single-issue focus on abortion on the part of some bishops and priests. As Massimo Borghesi has noted, other conservative Catholics have sought to baptize neoliberal economics, despite the efforts of recent popes to bring greater attention to the needs of the poor. This explains some of the conservative Catholic opposition to Pope Francis, who describes trickle-down economic theory as an “an economy of exclusion and inequality.”

As Massimo Faggioli has written, some traditionalist Catholics and bishops “can’t understand the Jesuit and Latin American reception of Vatican II that shapes this pontificate at a moment when the U.S. is no longer an extension of Europe and is confronting the end of ‘White Christian America’.” They too have politicized their faith. However, the church has an authoritative social doctrine that helps to inform the consciences of Catholics.

Thus, the polarization in Congress today is also reflected in our churches, both Protestant and Catholic, though white evangelical Protestants have the highest commitment to Trump and right-wing political extremism. This is far from the mind of Jesus, who called his disciples into his ministry to the last and the least and prayed that they would be one (Jn 17:22).

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