Understanding Christian Nationalism: Is the Constitution in Trouble?

In order to understand why the Jan. 6 insurrection happened, we need to know the history of Christian nationalists in America.

On January 6, 2021, an institution was shattered.

Violent right-wing radicals were the foundation of a mob that violated the U.S. Capitol. They occupied the Rotunda, where millions of school children had entered awestruck at democracy’s achievements. They did what Confederate armies failed to do during four years of Civil War—hoist the Confederate battle flag in the capital. The racist elements are undeniable.

The January 6 insurrection showed that forces in America are just as willing to shatter the Constitution. Christian nationalists have committed themselves to do so. Along with affiliated groups like the American Nazis and Ku Klux Klan (KKK or Klan) they occupy a distinct place on the political spectrum with their affinity for violence. Nothing on the other side comes close despite the strawman fictions of “socialism” or ANTIFA.

Most Christian nationalists claim they are merely “restoring” the Constitution as an instrument creating a white Christian homeland. The ideology is powerful, persistent and impermeable—no historical evidence will change it. Its presence on January 6 was flagrant.

Christian nationalists work to appear legitimate, waving American flags aplenty and invoking historically patriotic catchphrases like “Don’t Tread on Me.” They exploit rights of free speech and assembly under the very constitutional institutions they assault. Throughout American history, this grotesque caricature of both the Constitution and Christianity has existed justifying racialized right-wing terrorism.

Calls for a Different Constitution

The forces of white nationalism are distinct from periodic general calls to re-write or amend the Constitution, which tend to be under the Constitution’s legal framework or distinctly academic exercises. Under the Constitution’s Article V, if two-thirds of the states (34 out of 50) call for a Constitution convention, it triggers the process for a new one. Currently, 29 states have a standing call for a constitutional convention. How many of these calls are serious or just transitory politics is anyone’s guess.

The National Constitution Center, in a more balanced view, did a survey of various scholars regarding changing the Constitution. It asked teams of well-known conservative, liberal and libertarian legal scholars to rewrite the Constitution and compared the results in a public webinar. All three groups revised the existing Constitution rather than starting from scratch:

  • Libertarians wanted to just add “and we mean it” to the end of every clause. They advocated going way back to the original meaning (as it can be ascertained) of the 1789 Constitution.

  • Conservatives would change little. They would reduce the Senate to 50 members to make deliberation easier, with senators appointed, not elected. Likewise, presidential candidates would be selected and limited to one six-year term, and they would focus on politicians more interested in the “common good.”

  • Progressives praised the Constitution for being a force for good in promoting fundamental human rights, but that “positive rights” (such as healthcare) should be left to the political process. Progressives focused on ensuring more just numerical representation like the popular vote, making guns subject to regulation like every other dangerous instrument, and anti-discrimination.

Whose Constitution? Creating an Alternate History

Americans often disagree about the Constitution. On many notions people have about the Constitution, good civic education can clarify. But education cannot defeat ideology like Christian nationalism or the KKK’s.

The “constitutional devotion” of these groups to their ideological view has led to
violence in the name of upholding the Constitution. When asked why they resorted to camouflage and guns, militia supporters make two points:

  1. People pay attention to them when they dress like G.I. Joe, and
  2. Only violence, not the political process, can “restore” their Constitution.

In their view, the Constitution is a God-ordained (if not God-written) sacred text justifying dying and killing in the name of “patriotism.” Their constitution defines a white, “Christian” (definitely Protestant), male America. The Aryan Brotherhood, KKK and Christian identity groups preach northern Europeans as the true descendants of the Bible and Israel and the Constitution’s true foundation. Any painting of the “Founding Fathers” showing the white males can justify the ideology—if one does not actually read what they wrote in the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence such as “all men are created equal.”

A pro-Trump rally in D.C., November 2020. (Geoff Livingston / Flickr)

These beliefs have justified constitutional movements and arguments from slavery being both Christian and constitutional to,

  • the “sovereign citizen,”
  • the support for militia’s armed with assault rifles and high-capacity magazines,
  • the 1960’s Posse Comitatus Movement.

The enemy is the ever-handy Jew, and was communists, but today is the more general “socialist” or “liberals.”

Today’s militia movement also claims constitutional legitimacy for,

  • The 1992 Ruby Ridge, Idaho standoff.
  • The Waco, Texas, Branch Davidian confrontations in 1993.
  • Timothy McVeigh blowing up the Oklahoma City Federal Courthouse in 1995.

The Bundy Ranch stand-off in 2014 marked the new militia movement claiming constitutional legitimacy with the need to take back the country in their image. Mainstream conservatives with money and media outlets took up their message. Other affiliated groups such as the Oath Keepers, Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, III Percenters, Tea Partiers and others went to Bundy’s aid. Bundy’s challenge was to federal government authority even though the U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled against them in Canfield v. U.S. (1897) and Kleppe v. N.M. (1976).  So, they took up arms.

The Klan

For over a century and a half, the Klan has been the greatest purveyor of constitutional fiction in America, justifying its terrorism as defending the Constitution. Its main argument has been consistent—God created America and gave white Protestants the power—so God ordained their power through the Constitution. The Klan cites the original Constitution’s Three-Fifths Compromise, Fugitive Slave Clause, and refusal to prohibit slavery until into the future. Somehow the fact one side lost the Civil War and “We the People” amended that Constitution with the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments never permeates the Klan’s conscience.

Despite the Klan’s public ceremonies and claims of unity, it has always been a splintered in organizational infighting. Its trade is skulking terrorism, not open insurrection, which would require far more unity and organization. President Ulysses S. Grant defeated the first Klan’s terrorism and violence against African Americans during Reconstruction with strong enforcement under the Klu Klux Klan Act of 1871.  

After D.W. Griffith’s cinematic racist rant The Birth of a Nation in 1915, the Klan rose again to battle an influx of immigrants including Catholics and Jews—its victims broadened beyond African Americans. This version of the Klan was like a fast-food franchise marketing the power of fear and hate.  Selling regalia like the robes and hoods made its leaders rich.  Eventually, the graft and sexual corruption caused the Klan to collapse. 

The next Klan resurgence was after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. This Klan added civil rights workers and communists to its victims. But the Klan by this point had become marginalized. In 1947, for instance, the writers of Superman Comics took it on. Superman, the embodiment of “truth, justice, and the American Way” beat them up—not just physically but with words as outlined by Rick Bowers in SUPERMAN VERSUS THE KU KLUX KLAN: THE TRUE STORY OF HOW THE ICONIC SUPERHERO BATTLED THE MEN OF HATE (2012).

Two children wearing Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods stand by Dr. Samuel Green, Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon, at an initiation ceremony in Atlanta on July 24, 1948. (Wikimedia Commons)

After the Supreme Court ended segregation, the Klan splintered in two: One still believes in the white man’s Constitution and seeks to restore white rule with violence; the other no longer believes in the Constitution and seeks a separate white nation. 

A large part of the current Klan has fused with the Neo-Nazi Aryan “The Order” focusing on “white power” against the federal government and Jews. Now the violence can be directed at the government because the enemy controls the government and Constitution. We witnessed this violence against the government on January 6, 2021.

From the Klan to Christian Nationalism

Christian nationalism mirrors the Klan’s belief that being a white Protestant “Christian” is essential to being American. In the 19th Century, arriving Catholics, Jews and free-thinkers threatened some Protestants. They argued for a constitutional amendment or simply to enforce their notion of a Constitution reflecting only white protestant identity.

Christian nationalism is neither Christian nor nationalism. Rather it centers on the belief America was and should be:

  • a Christian nation,
  • the promotion of religious supremacy of their own religion over others, even other Christians,
  • the Ten Commandments should be the foundation of U.S. law, and
  • the Constitution should implement the Bible.

Christian nationalism taps into Old Testament notions of a chosen people’s obligation to occupy and control the promised land as Sara Diamond outlines. Senator Josh Hawley’s statement preceding the January 6, 2021 insurrection echoed the idea:

“There is not one square inch of all creation over which Jesus Christ is not Lord … We are called to take that message into every sphere of life that we touch, including the political realm. That is our charge. To take the Lordship of Christ, that message, into the public realm, and to seek the obedience of the nations. Of our nation!”

Where is room for anyone else not made in Hawley’s image? The white Christian nationalist approach excludes any broader consensus or even democratic input. If ideology trumps facts, then “stop the steal” gains currency.

Arizona’s own state Representative John Kavanagh demonstrated how this non-democratic ideology of a fringe group like the Christian nationalists has morphed into a policy position of at least part of the Republican Party:

“There’s a fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans … Democrats value as many people as possible voting, and they’re willing to risk fraud. Republicans are more concerned about fraud, so we don’t mind putting measures in that won’t let everybody vote — but everybody shouldn’t be voting. … Not everybody wants to vote, and if somebody is uninterested in voting, that probably means that they’re totally uninformed on the issues. … Quantity is important, but we have to look at quality of votes, as well.”

Christian nationalism has clear political goals with model laws seeking to assure religion has free reign in the public square. The movement supports legislators with public relations campaigns and messaging. They seek to put the Bible back in public schools and prevent women from exercising reproductive choice or LGBTQ people from equal participation in the public arena.

Other more mainstream political movements share many of these political goals. What makes Christian nationalism unique is its willingness to resort to violence and its affinity for declaring war on the foundational structures of American democracy in favor of an exclusive political ideology. Jan. 6 showed their ideological statements are not hyperbole.

From the Klan’s White Constitution to Culture Wars to Insurrection

The January 6 insurrectionists had mixed motivations. But the leaven Christian nationalists provided was irrefutable. Eight minutes into the video posted by the New Yorker, the insurrectionists are praying to Jesus on the floor of the Senate. They coupled this with a mix of Old and New Testament imagery including crosses, “Jesus Saves” stickers and “Jesus 2020” flags. They engaged in a “Jericho March” around the Capitol while blowing Jewish ritual horns (shofars) so the walls would fall. (For a group with such an anti-Semitic foundation, they adopted a lot of Old Testament Jewish symbols). Christian nationalism provided the political and theological underpinnings of this, and it has allowed anarchy to reign according to Andrew Whitehead of Indiana University.

The Capitol insurrection “was as Christian nationalist as it gets,” wrote Samuel L. Perry, professor of sociology and co-author of Taking America Back for God. “[It] reflects a mindset that clearly merges national power and divine authority, believing God demands American leadership be wrested from godless usurpers and entrusted to true patriots who must be willing to shed blood—their own and others’—for God and country.”

The goal is control not belief.

“It is not piety but policy that matters most,” wrote Gerardo Marti, a professor of sociology at Davidson College. “The real triumph is when evangelical convictions become encoded into law.”

The link of Christian nationalism with racism is equally commented, as one participant (Dierdre Sugiuchi) noted: “I grew up in the Christian nationalist movement … I came to understand how racism is ingrained in the teachings of the white evangelical church … I worry that neither the white evangelical church nor the public at large understands the danger that Christian Nationalism poses to democracy.”

The “Culture Wars” and White Nationalism

The term “culture wars” is subjective. Many have deep beliefs about their view of an American society at odds with the deep held beliefs of others—abortion vs. reproductive rights, gun rights vs. gun control, prayer in or out of public school.

But the ‘culture wars” have racial overtones. As conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan noted in 1992, the “culture wars” were a ruse to preserve white dominance in the U.S.

The debate over government sponsored prayer in public school is but one example. A principal or teacher leading a Christian prayer in public school has passed muster for generations when white Protestants dominated the political structure and expected Jews and Catholics to endure with patient forbearance. But today the student body is multicultural and diverse, reflecting changing demographics, with most students coming from families listing their religious preference as “none.” Thus, having a Christian prayer in public schools is not just a question of imposing faith but of race.

Likewise, the battle over whether religious institutions and people must equally serve everyone under public accommodations law is not just about same-sex wedding cakes. The debate emanates from a much earlier racial history of excluding people from private property.  

Nothing in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution or Bill of Rights recognized a “rule” allowing a right to exclude others from public accommodations. At common law, all businesses that opened themselves to the public served everyone. Once a business invited a customer, any refusal to do business was a breach of contract. Before the Civil War, every business that open to the public had a legal obligation to serve everyone.

The right to exclude did not come into legal existence until after the Civil War with a rush to exclude newly freed African Americans from public spaces. After Congress passed the 1875 Public Accommodations Law, Southern states passed state laws limiting public accommodations or repealed the public accommodations laws they had. By “1900 every state in the former Confederacy, as well as Kentucky, had adopted new statutes instituting the Jim Crow policy of forced racial segregation in public accommodations, validated by Plessy v. Ferguson.

“The libertarian right to exclude … is racist at the core,” according to Koppelman and Wolff. But fundamentally, “[t]he right to exclude in the commercial context was not part of our nation’s background legal understanding. Such a right is neither inevitable, traditional, nor uncontroversial. Those claiming this privilege bear the burden to argue why, in an environment of growing equality in the public square, they should be allowed to discriminate. A simple assertion ‘it’s my property’ will no longer suffice.”

The Constitution certainly recognizes the right to exclude others from your home in the Third Amendment. But that does not extend to a commercial enterprise where the owner has issued a public invitation for business. Owners can discriminate against some potential customers if they are, for instance, violent (drunk, carrying a gun) or unsafe (wear shirt, shoes and a mask in a pandemic). But owners cannot discriminate when a person belongs to a protected race, color, sex, disability, sexual orientation, national origin or religion.

Businesses used to have signs reading “No Dogs or Chinaman” or “No Irish or Mexicans.” Today, there is no property right for a business owner to hang a sign reading “No Gays” or “No Muslims.” In short, business property rights are not private.

White Christian Nationalism’s Attack on Democracy

White Christian nationalism is a political ideology, not a religious creed. Its blatant political objective is to gain power and to impose its vision on society. The goal is to destroy liberal democracy and, in its place, create an autocratic theocracy. In a break from the past, white Christian nationalists no longer pretend they believe in democracy. The “Stop the Steal” insurrectionists on January 6 had difficulty producing a cogent argument as to how Trump did not win without relying on variations of the fiction that people voted who should not have.

The “culture wars” are the masquerade for white Christian nationalists as they wage a political war against the norms and institutions of American democracy. By claiming they want to “return” the country to a time when religion was more prominent, they make a flanking attack on the expansion of voting and civil rights.

Most of the interest groups bringing constitutional challenges to the courts are not white Christian nationalists But the cases they bring favoring an expansive view of religious rights over rights of LGBT persons can produce the foundation they seek for religiously sanctioned discrimination.

If a bakery owner who does not believe in same-sex marriage can claim a religious right not the bake a cake, what stops him from deny a Black couple a cake because he has a religious belief that African Americans and whites should not marry?

America has always been, and always should be, about a vast range of acceptable political dispute and discourse. Likewise, we debate the parameters of our constitution with competing theories and foundations.

Christian nationalists, like the Klan concurrently and before it, do not count any more than Nazis during World War II or Soviet communism did. The vision of America they want to impose is so exclusive and violent it cannot fall within the acceptable range of discourse.

The Constitution in the First Amendment allows us to believe whatever we want without government sanction. We have freedom to act out our creeds, but not absolutely. There are limits to religious acts—notably when those acts infringe on the rights of others. And the Constitution does not protect people when their ideology leads to violent acts that form the foundation of a violent insurrection, like we saw on January 6.

Up Next:

About and

Dianne Post is an international human right attorney and activist, residing in Arizona.
Robert J. McWhirter is a Certified Specialist in Criminal Law, Author and Constitutional Historian, residing in Arizona.