The Pulse

Demographic shifts, historical revisionism fueling Christian nationalist push among conservatives

By: - October 28, 2022 7:58 am

This week, Policy Watch published a report on the Christian nationalism animating The American Renewal Project, a conservative evangelical group working closely with the N.C. Republican party to promote GOP candidates and recruit pastors to run for office.

The group, which rejects the concept of a separation between church and state, seeks to make its conservative interpretation of Christianity central to government policy and to mandate religious instruction and Christian prayer in public schools. Among the Renewal Project’s most passionate supporters: Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. Robinson – the top elected Republican in the state, now teasing a run for governor – has headlined Renewal Project events at churches across the state all year, including one this week with U.S. Senate candidate Ted Budd.

The Republican party has long courted evangelical Christians, said Dr. Michael Bitzer, professor of History and Political Science at Catawba College in Salisbury. But research continues to show Americans becoming less religious – with declines concentrated among the protestants who make up the American evangelical movement. Anxiety over that shift has tightened the bonds between evangelicals and the Republican party, Bitzer said, leading to a GOP embrace of a brand of Christian nationalism that was once well outside the mainstream.

“Just as Black African American voters are reliable Democratic voters, evangelicals are now reliable Republican voters,” Bitzer said. “They tend to influence the candidates and they become the candidates seeking office under the Republican nomination.”

As the society continues to change and diversify, Bitzer said, many evangelicals have become worried about losing governing power in what they see as a zero sum political game. The recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade was the result of a 50 year campaign to return decisions about abortion to the states, he said, where religious conservatives have more influence. But increasingly, generations coming of political age have no religious affiliation.

Last year, the Pew Research Center found about 30 percent of American surveyed were religious “nones” – people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” when asked about their religious identity. When Pew began asking its current questions about religious identity in 2007, it found American Christians outnumbered religious “nones” five-to-one. Today, that’s down to a little more than two-to-one in a steady downward trend.

Self-identified evangelicals or “born again” Christians make up 60 percent of U.S. protestants. But the overall protestant population – evangelical and not – has dropped 10 percent in the last ten years, from about half  of Americans to 40 percent. The remaining evangelicals tend to be whiter and much older than the general population, Bitzer said, while rising generations are both more racially and ethnically diverse and less in line with socially conservative evangelical Christian values.

“Society is changing, there’s transformation under way,” Bitzer said. “And there are concerns by evangelicals about losing their governing power.”

To hold on to that power, Bitzer said, they need to instill some of their religious beliefs into government policy. That brings them into conflict with the longstanding American value of a separation between church and state and the establishment clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment, which prohibits the government from acting in a way that unduly favors one religion over another or gives preference to religion over non-religion.

Dr. Scott Huffmon

That’s a long established and upheld American legal precedent, said Dr. Scott Huffmon, a professor of Political Science at Winthrop University in South Carolina. It was also a well-documented value of America’s founding fathers, he said, who believed there could be no free exercise of religion if the government favored one religion or religious denomination over another.

That leads to a need for Christian nationalists to deny or rewrite the history of the American founding, Huffman said. That often means selectively concentrating on the personal religious sentiments of the most pious founding fathers while ignoring their statements and writings that made it clear they did not consider their personal religious views to be national or government values.

“Tying their sentiments to the founding fathers lends it legitimacy and gravitas,” Huffmon said. “But in order to do that, you have to be very selective and ignore a lot of what they actually said and wrote.”

Robinson demonstrated Huffmon’s point at a recent Renewal Project event covered by Policy Watch, reciting a profession of personal religious faith by founder James Madison as evidence the founding fathers were “not ashamed” to speak publicly of their Christian faith.

While Madison was a man of personal faith, Huffmon said, Christian nationalists drafting him into their argument have to ignore his “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” of 1785, one of the most powerful early arguments against intermingling government and religious faith.

They also need to ignore his documented arguments for a separation between church and state in his letters, an oft-cited example being his 1822 letter to Edward Livingston:

“Notwithstanding the general progress made within the two last Centuries in favor of this branch of liberty, and the full establishment of it, in some parts of our Country, there remains in others, a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Government & Religion, neither can be duly supported. Such indeed is the tendency to such a Coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger can not be too carefully guarded against. And in a Government of opinion, like ours, the only effectual guard must be found in the soundness & stability of the general opinion on the subject. Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical & Civil matters is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that Religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

Religion has been a political powder keg in American politics from the beginnings of the Republic, Huffmon said, pointing to the public framing of the political face-off between founding fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson as a decision between religious faith and atheism.

Adams was more conventionally, vocally and publicly religiously pious than Jefferson, whose letter to the Danbury Baptists has long been cited as popularizing the idea of a wall between church and state.

But even the devout Adams rejected the mingling of church and state and, as president, signed the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, which declared “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.”

“There is a lot you have to ignore to draft the founding fathers into this kind of argument,” Huffmon said.

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.