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To commend or enforce?

Christian nationalism and the Constitution

House members and their families pray on the opening day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 3. Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon

To commend or enforce?
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Christian nationalism has roiled the religious intelligentsia for the past several years, and rightly so. As parties appear to be realigning, and ideologies are challenged, Christian nationalism could reconfigure how some Americans connect faith and politics. But the debates have often been more rancorous than revealing. Christian nationalism’s critics tend to maximize it as a threat, while its advocates minimize it, sometimes to fit it into American history and tradition. We want to put aside the caricature and engage the best and most defensible arguments of Christian nationalism. As we read them graciously, they want the state to commend Christianity rather than enforce it. Is this possible under the American Constitution?

The difference between commendation and enforcement is dramatic. Enforcement requires tangible coercion through the state’s purse or sword. Directly using tax dollars for religious purposes, fines, imprisonment, or execution because of religious error, are easy examples. Commendation consists of words, ceremonies, or the use of symbols to communicate a strong, exclusive, and public preference for Christianity.

At minimum, this might be the use of a Bible to swear in jurors, prayers before legislative sessions, or religious displays, like a nativity scene or a cross, on public property. At maximum, it might involve prayer, the posting of the Ten Commandments, and religious instruction in public schools, or religious officials playing an active role in public spaces as representatives of the state.

Christian nationalists believe government’s words and deeds would foster a culture that leads to religious conversion. This is a mild form of coercion as we look at the sweep of history, but it is the privileging of Christianity through the power of the state. A variety of thinkers, like R.R. Reno or Stephen Wolfe, argue such privileging is consistent with the American founding. Are they correct?

Well, yes and no. State governments did have far more discretion over religious matters early in our history. Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts established religion until the 19th century, well past the ratification of the First Amendment in 1791. These establishments allowed for the commendation and some enforcement of Christianity. Tax dollars supported churches and ministers. In Connecticut, families were required to possess a Bible, and if they did not, one was supplied.

The Supreme Court has long been protective of the vision of religious liberty that existed in 1868 instead of 1789.

This did not conflict with the Establishment Clause because the Supreme Court determined the Bill of Rights limited the national government, but not those at the state or local level. Still, the national government could support religion broadly. Congress opened with prayer, and military chaplains were installed. Presidents regularly said, “So help me, God” after the oath of office. While there was a national preference for religion, most of that support was drained of doctrinal content. If that legal regime were still in place, Christian nationalists, using the benefits of federalism, could enact elements of their vision wherever they were in a majority.

But we no longer live in that constitutional universe. The Fourteenth Amendment changed everything. Ratified in the ashes of the Civil War, the Amendment was provoked by southern states that had systematically denied rights and liberties not only to slaves, but to free African Americans and northern transplants in the region.

Those who enacted the amendment were also more concerned about vulnerable racial, religious, and political minorities than those who framed the First Amendment. The due process clause, equal protection clause, and the decision to secure the “privileges and immunities” of national citizenship against state and local meddling all suggest this goal.

Between 1868, when the Amendment was ratified, and 1833, when Massachusetts shuttered its established church, the American mind began to solidify against religious preference by the state. The early arguments opposing established churches in the 1770s and 1780s were finding larger audiences. Of the 37 states then in existence, 27 had establishment clauses in their constitutions. America was moving from a nation that tolerated minority religions into one that protected religious equality.

The Supreme Court, over time, relied on the Fourteenth Amendment to apply the Bill of Rights against state and local governments. While it often gets the history, and some rulings, wrong, the Supreme Court has long been protective of the vision of religious liberty that existed in 1868 instead of 1789. Maybe most importantly, we believe the current Court, which is more protective of religious liberty than perhaps any Court in recent history, will see things the same way.

Like the Christian nationalists, our brothers and sisters in Christ, we want a cultural transformation in America. However, we are not persuaded that government coercion is the best path forward, and we are not convinced the current Supreme Court will allow it.

Mark Caleb Smith

Mark Caleb Smith teaches American politics, constitutional law, and research methodology/data analysis at Cedarville University in Ohio. He also serves as director of the Center for Political Studies and most recently was named the inaugural dean of the School of Arts and Humanities. Dr. Smith has authored numerous journal articles, book chapters and his primary interest is in the field of religion and American politics.

Emma Blakemore

Emma Blakemore graduated with highest honors in 2023 from Cedarville University in international studies. As a researcher for Cedarville University's Center for Political Studies, she focuses on constitutional and religious issues.

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