During the domestic terrorist assault on the Capitol Building in Washington DC on January 6, a group of violent Trump supporters made their way into the chambers of Congress. They gathered together, took a knee, and invoked the name of Jesus Christ in prayer, thanking him for blessing their efforts to reclaim the building – and the nation – for their own political vision.
The prayer episode is an example of American white Christian nationalism: a political ideology that views the United States as a country ordained by God to be essentially and fundamentally white and Christian. People who are neither white nor Christian can support this view and be tolerated by those who adhere to it. But other minorities, white people who do not identify as Christian, and Christians who repudiate this worldview are viewed as unfit for participation in American society.
White Christian nationalism has deep roots in American history. In the 18th-19th century, biblical passages about slavery were recruited to point to the God-ordained nature of the enslavement of Africans. The wealth generated from the labor of these enslaved people was evidence that God had blessed the beneficiaries of the institution, lending a divine seal of approval to white supremacy and Black dehumanization. A similar theology led to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny – the view that the United States should be a white Christian country from sea to shining sea, licensing the annihilation of Native American communities. Justification for the violence and brutality perpetrated against native communities was also drawn from the pages of Christian scripture.
American institutions grew in the wake of these events that enshrined both whiteness and Christianity as essential features. In some cases, this was subtle. Money printed with the phrase “In God We Trust”, the pledge of allegiance identifying the United States as “one nation under God”, and the suspending of government business on Christmas all make Christian claims on economic and government institutions that have primarily benefited white Americans and disadvantaged others.
While white Christian nationalism endured throughout this country’s history, it featured especially prominently into the postures and policies of the Trump administration. The inauguration of the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem intertwined American foreign policy with a triumphalist Evangelical Christian worldview.
Former Attorney General William Barr’s speech at Notre Dame Law School in 2019 featured a diatribe against the dangers of secularism in American society. Senator Marco Rubio used (and continues to use) his official Twitter account to quote Christian Scripture. And the administration’s controversial “1776 Report” rejected qualified academic positions on American history in favor of one that promoted white supremacy and Christian theology.
But even more aggressive forms of white Christian nationalism are easily-identified parts of modern American political discourse. Studies have indeed noted that white Christian nationalists are inclined toward violence or threats of violence to maintain their privileged place in American society, with greater resistance to firearm regulation, support for the death penalty, and hostile responses to immigrants and civil rights initiatives benefiting minorities. And during the 2020 presidential election campaign, Donald Trump routinely claimed not only that white spaces (“suburbs”) were under threat, but that gun rights and Christianity itself would be harmed by those who did not identify politically as Christian conservatives.
The theologizing of racial prejudice becomes more severe when white Christian nationalists fear destabilizing conditions. Familiar are the images of Ku Klux Klan rallies, replete with Christian symbolism, meant to reject civil rights and intimidate minorities, but other examples are significant. In the face of improved conditions for Black Americans during the Obama administration, Dylann Roof chose a Black church in Charleston, SC as the site for his murder of 9 people in 2015; he later noted in a jailhouse letter that denying the truth of white nationalism was a “sin”.
More recent examples of white Christian nationalist violence have made headlines. White Evangelical groups raised thousands of dollars to support the bail fund of Kyle Rittenhouse, the domestic terrorist who murdered unarmed Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Kenosha, WI on Aug 25, 2020. The speakers at the far-right “Jericho Rally” in Washington D.C. on December 12, 2020 repeatedly invoked the name of Jesus Christ while addressing groups of violent white supremacists (who went on to vandalize a black church). And white church leaders regularly lauded Donald Trump as “godly” throughout his presidency, even as Trump coddled avowed white supremacist groups and pushed policies that threatened minority communities.
Many critics of white Christian nationalism claim that it is a bastardization of Christianity. But not only does this ignore the earlier institutions of human enslavement and Manifest Destiny that were licensed by early American Christians, it also ignores the features of Christianity itself. Like all religions, Christianity preserves concepts of love and charity alongside myths of vengeance, purgation, and holy war – which draw from even earlier ancient near eastern myths of a divine order constantly threatened by demons of chaos who must be violently dispatched.
It is toward this “conflict myth” that white Christian nationalists gravitate in expressing their racial-religious values. The idea of a persistent enemy of God guides white Christian nationalist attitudes on multiculturalism and secularism, echoed in statements from former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The same concept was expressed in 2019 by former Vice President Mike Pence’s graduation address to students at Liberty University, where secular popular culture (including science, art, civil rights, ethnic and religious diversity) was characterized as an idolatrous threat to the students’ (mostly) white Christian piety.
This idea lurks behind the yearly right-wing claims of a “war on Christmas”, which reads non-Christian religious and cultural traditions as an assault on Christian hegemony. But it also takes on more sinister forms such as conspiracy theories steeped in antisemitic tropes with an emphasis on non-Christian ethnic minorities attempting to undermine American society. Taken alongside the tradition of violence (both in language and deed) in white Christian nationalism, such views essentially declare war on other Americans as enemies of the state.
The assault on the Capitol Building on January 6th bears witness to what happens when white Christian nationalism is taken to its logical extreme. The very symbols of national identity are viewed as spaces to be purged of apostates, rechristened by “real” Americans through a baptism of bloodshed and even human sacrifice (a concept also found in biblical sources, e.g., 2 Kings 23:15-20). A government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” is retained only when defining “the people” as those who prioritize Christian whiteness as evidence of divine election. Everything else – scientific and historical fact, the rule of law, the separation of church and state, and religious, ethnic and racial diversity – is of the Devil.
Mark Leuchter is Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism in the Department of Religion at Temple University in Philadelphia. He has served in executive positions with the Society of Biblical Literature, the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies, and is a member of the Bible and Religions of the Ancient Near East (BRANE) Collective. His favorite band is Rush. Follow him on Twitter @MarkLeuchter.