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Do accusations of “Christian nationalism” really tell us anything?

If you can apply the label to FDR and Billy Graham, what does it even mean?

Billy Graham (left) meets with President John F. Kennedy at the White House in 1961. Associated Press

Do accusations of “Christian nationalism” really tell us anything?
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These days, it is difficult to avoid articles and books warning us of the dangers of “Christian nationalism.” The term is everywhere. These arguments come with the same breathless message: Christian nationalism is taking over evangelical churches. Yale University sociology professor Philip Gorski describes it as “an ideology based on a story about America that’s developed over three centuries. It reveres the myth that the country was founded as a Christian nation by white Christians and that its laws and institutions are based on Protestant Christianity.” He adds, “White Christian nationalists believe that the country is divinely favored and has been given the mission to spread religion, freedom, and civilization.”

By that standard, most American churches and denominations historically have shared that nationalist belief. American Protestants and Catholics both argued that God had favored the United States and that Christians owed God our labor to make our society more virtuous per broadly Christian precepts. If this is the standard of Christian nationalism, every American from John Winthrop to Abraham Lincoln to Franklin D. Roosevelt to Billy Graham could be termed a Christian nationalist. FDR, certainly not a “white evangelical,” nonetheless saw Christian civilizational precepts as essential for the maintenance of the American republic. He once said that our “modern democratic way of life has its deepest roots in our great common religious tradition.” Another time, he lauded Christianity, “which for ages past has taught to civilized mankind the dignity of the human being, his equality before God, and his responsibility in the making of a better and fairer world.”

To teach democratic faith to American children, Roosevelt once argued that we needed the “sustaining, buttressing aid of those great ethical religious teachings which are the heritage of our modern civilization.” For FDR, American democracy was founded “not upon strength nor upon power, but upon the spirit of God.”

The charge of Christian nationalism is often little more than a misleading rhetorical device co-opted by academics who wish to delegitimize the conservative expressions of faith they view as contrary to their own.

Liberal Christians like Roosevelt and evangelical conservatives commonly understood that spiritual commitments had civilizational consequences. Billy Graham, the famed evangelist, hardly fit the description promulgated recently of a Christian nationalist intent on seizing political power and enforcing an idealized Christian standard on society. Nonetheless, Graham said, “America has probably been the most successful experiment in history. The American Dream was a glorious attempt. It was built on a religious foundation. Its earliest concepts came from Holy Scripture.” He argued that moral decay experienced in the United States in the 20th century occurred because Americans had “wandered far from the faith in our fathers.” No nation, he noted, that relegated “the Bible to the background, which disregards the love of God and flouts the claims of the Man of Galilee, can long survive.”

The survival of the American republic, Graham believed, required the Bible at the center of societal commitments. Graham was hardly a right-winger intent on creating a Christian state, and conservative evangelicals who believe that Christian precepts help maintain the American political order are not interested in a self-declared Christian state. Most simply want to maintain a legitimate commitment to the basic values that birthed the republic—and those were found in the legacy of Protestant Christianity.

If charges of Christian nationalism can be applied to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Billy Graham, it is perhaps too broad a term to have any usefulness. The charge of Christian nationalism is often little more than a misleading rhetorical device co-opted by academics who wish to delegitimize the conservative expressions of faith they view as contrary to their own. The term is used loosely and thrown carelessly. The sensational accusations of Christian nationalism lobbed by Gorski and others at conservative evangelical Protestants are rhetorical slights of hand used for partisan political purposes rather than a meaningful or reasoned criticism. If you don’t believe me, just check their Twitter feeds.

Miles Smith

Miles Smith is a lecturer in history at Hillsdale College. His area of interest is the intellectual and religious history of the 19th-century United States and the Atlantic World.


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