If the first debate for the 2024 Republican primary is any indication, we’re headed toward a combative and chaotic presidential race. The first debate, held last night in Milwaukee, was most notable for who didn’t attend, namely former President Donald Trump, who, despite facing four separate criminal indictments, is the leading Republican candidate by a margin of nearly 40 points. His refusal to debate his opponents does a disservice to Republican voters and the country, all of whom deserve to hear Trump defend his previous actions and 2024 campaign platform, which includes several dangerously authoritarian proposals such as making it easier to fire career civil servants or deploying the National Guard to fight street crime.
But my main interest in watching the first Republican primary debate was to get a sense of whether Republican candidates would challenge the growing anti-democratic forces within their party. For example, will Republican candidates continue to defend Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results? And will they continue to embrace the “us-versus-them,” fear and grievance-based politics that propelled Trump to power? I was also on the lookout for indicators of candidates’ support for white Christian nationalism, a set of ideas enjoying an alarming resurgence (and super-charging the anti-democratic forces) that pose a grave threat to both our democracy and the witness of the church.
The term “Christian nationalism” gets used in different ways, but some experts define it as “a constellation of beliefs — that the founding of the United States was ‘divinely inspired’ or that God is invested in the success of the U.S. — that manifest in political goals.” In politics (and some churches), these ideas are part of a coordinated strategy to ensure white Christians maintain their ongoing dominance in all sectors of U.S. society. When I think about examples of Christian nationalism, I think of the subtle ways some people imply that one must be Christian to be a “true” American, or argue that the growing presence of non-white people and non-Christians pose a threat to “traditional” values, or stoke fear by saying that Christianity is under attack.
But Christian nationalism exists on a spectrum — and we need to resist it in all its forms. Extreme and overt manifestations of Christian nationalism include those who displayed Christian symbols and prayed during the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Subtler and perhaps more insidious forms of Christian nationalism include people who say things like, “America has always been and should remain a Christian nation.” We also must be careful not to use “Christian nationalism” as a catchall term for anyone we disagree with, including social or political conservatives; while we may strongly disagree with those who want to make abortion illegal or support cuts to social welfare programs, we should not assume that someone who holds those beliefs automatically believes Christianity deserves a more prominent place in U.S. politics.
While there are some extreme politicians like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) who proudly claim the label, it’s unlikely the top Republican presidential candidates will explicitly embrace Christian nationalism by that name. Instead, voters in the 2024 election will need to be on the lookout for how candidates’ behavior and rhetoric aligns with Christian nationalist ideals and anti-democratic beliefs. Or as Jesus put it: “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16).
Here are some questions I’ll be asking throughout the upcoming election to evaluate whether any candidates seeking public office are advancing Christian nationalism and anti-democratic views:
1. Does the candidate perpetuate the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump?
In other words, do they seek to undermine trust in our electoral process and thwart free and fair elections? The correlation between Christian nationalist beliefs and the belief that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump has been documented in both surveys and reporting. Recent surveys have also shown 40 percent of people who adhere to Christian nationalist beliefs agree with the statement that “patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country,” compared to just 16 percent of all Americans. And though the 2020 elections are long over, the threat of election interference is not: Among the 2024 field of candidates, The Washington Post has documented that only seven of the 12 candidates they contacted would commit to accepting the results of the 2024 election. Fortunately, in the first Republican debate, every candidate except for Vivek Ramaswamey agreed that former Vice President Mike Pence did the right thing when he exercised his constitutional duty to certify the 2020 election results. On the other hand, it was deeply disconcerting that all of the candidates (except former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie) expressed that they would still support Trump if he won the nomination and was convicted of a crime in a court of law.
2. Does the candidate stoke fear through “us-versus-them” rhetoric or by demonizing anyone deemed “other”?
Two recent studies show that Christian nationalism is highly correlated with racism, white supremacy, homophobia, patriarchy, and Islamophobia. While we certainly cannot say that a person who makes racist comments or expresses support for an Islamophobic policy is automatically a Christian nationalist, we can think of this connection as one of several things of which we should be wary. For example, hard line stances on immigration taken by most of the declared GOP candidates indicate that, at the very, these candidates are trying to exploit the degree to which many conservative voters fear the United States’ growing racial and religious diversity. During the first debate, Ramaswamy described migrants entering the country as “the invasion across our southern border”— language that dehumanizes migrants, evokes threat and warfare, and echoes similar language many candidates have used throughout their campaigns. We also need to be vigilant for candidates using any coded language, often called dog whistles, that signal to audiences that white Americans are the “true” or “real Americans” and others are therefore suspect and less patriotic or less truly American.
3. Does the candidate proclaim a revisionist history account of the U.S. being “a Christian nation”?
Our nation was founded around the First Amendment’s commitment to no established religion and the free exercise of religion, but last fall, some candidates for Congress and governor got a lot of attention for more overt and aggressive statements about America’s founding as a Christian nation. In the coming elections, we should watch for these blatant examples as well as softer statements that carry this connotation.
4. Does the candidate talk about America’s “chosenness” and greatness without acknowledging the way our nation has continually fallen short of its founding principles?
For example, in the first debate, South Carolina’s Sen. Tim Scott, who is Black, kept talking about his life story of overcoming adversity to underline American greatness and the American dream, saying that if he could succeed in the U.S., anyone can. Yet Scott failed to mention any of the systemic injustices deeply rooted in history that continue to disadvantage and harm Black and brown Americans.
5. Does the candidate only talk about faith or “biblical values” when it comes to hostility to LGBTQ+ rights and opposing abortion?
This misguided and overly narrow agenda says very little about so many other issues of grave moral consequence — from climate change to poverty to racialized policing and immigration, and more. For example, during the first debate, Pence repeatedly invoked his faith as he called for a national 15-week ban on abortion, ignoring that many people of his same faith do not share his moral position on abortion. Nor did Pence invoke his faith to call for a more urgent response to domestic or global poverty.
6. Does the candidate demonize racial justice commitments or dismiss them as being “woke”?
Christian nationalism is often tied to an ethno-nationalist identity, which in the U.S., means being white. Many candidates who claim to be “anti-woke” are simply refusing to imagine an America in which the promise of “liberty and justice for all” is truly extended to people of every racial group. Many of these people also deny that there is any need to seek repair or systemic change to correct past and current wrongs. At last night’s debate, Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis bragged about his record of banning Critical Race Theory (never mind that the theory isn’t something taught in primary or secondary schools to begin with) and what he called “gender ideology,” in schools. These are clear signals that he objects to a true accounting of American history that recognizes the role racism and sexism have always played. This myth that the the U.S. is an “innocent nation” is prevalent among Christian nationalists.
In Matthew 5, Jesus is clear that the way to discern whether Christian language is true or false is to look to the outcomes: the fruit. The questions above can help us recognize — and resist — the manifestations, or fruit, of Christian nationalism at the federal, state, and local level. The point of recognizing this unsavory fruit isn’t to then demonize the people who bear it; the point of recognizing this toxic ideology is to neutralize it and keep it from spreading. In the voting booth, this means rejecting candidates who embrace these ideas; in our churches, it means being resourceful and more courageous in finding ways to disciple Christians away from this heresy.
Editor’s note: This piece was corrected on Aug. 28, 2023 to reflect that Chris Christie said he would not support Donald Trump as Republican candidate if Trump were convicted of a felony.