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Mike Johnson’s Christian Nationalism—And Yours

Some labels are just about chasing normal people out of the polite mainstream.

Credit: Allen J.M. Smith

As if you had not been told already, hardly a day goes by without a headline reminding us that, after something of an autumnal carnival, habemus—we have a speaker of the House. A theme has emerged in the media coverage. Mike Johnson is a “Christian nationalist,” we are told over and over again, in pieces from Time, from Politico, and from New York Magazine, from Salon, from the Washington Post, and from the New York Times (those are just the outlets you have heard of). 

And if, as the Jesus and John Wayne author Kristen Du Mez said on MSNBC this weekend, they mean by that tag just what sociologists have labeled “Christian nationalism,” then they are right, so far as it goes. But throat-clearing clarifications that this is a non-pejorative academic label should feel like fig leaves, surrounded as they always are by the breathless language of danger, fear, and condemnation. 


The assessments of Johnson highlight an ambiguity in the discourse about Christian nationalism and in the term itself, which American Christians in particular should bear in mind as the confusion is used to marginalize and manipulate them. The signifier “Christian nationalist” acts as both an allegedly dispassionate sociological descriptor and, usually with “white” attached at the front, a catch-all for the bad people who don’t want to replace the stars and stripes with the vexillologically dysphoric “progress” flag. Plus, of course, some people even call themselves Christian nationalists in defiance of the condemnation. 

All these competing uses continue to be muddled in the mind of the general public. The establishment media and liberal evangelicals who make a living out of complaining to a secular elite about their benighted coreligionists continue to use the ambiguity to their political advantage. It is a blatant effort to push a position held by many elected officials out of the mainstream. The real target is normal conservative evangelicals in politics; fixation on allegedly extremist niche theory is a weapon of convenience.

The checklists used by third-rate sociologists to define Christian nationalism are so generic as to be almost useless. That is the point, insofar as they can catch up a significant portion of American evangelicalism. When expressed in plain language without sufficient high-status jargon and hedging, conservative evangelicals’ normal view of faith and political life registers as “Christian nationalist” according to the semi-academic literature. It might be you.

You perhaps think your identity as a Christian is essential to your identity and actions as a citizen, because—though Christ’s kingdom is not of this world—you are a Christian citizen in a country that is made a nation by the rule of “we the people.” Thus, being your authentic self just like a good liberal, you believe you are your best as an American when you don’t hide your faith in public, especially in participating in political life. You are a good citizen because you try to be a good Christian, and it wouldn’t occur to you to pretend that’s not the case. You probably think America has been “a Christian nation,” or at least had a Christian society, and that God has blessed this country. 

Christian nationalism made the jump from sociology departments to headlines and talking heads with the January 6 riot. The same people calling Johnson a Christian nationalist today were just as eager then to trot out the label for the rioters. But as Daniel Strand, an ethics professor at the Air War College, documented in these pages last year, the assertion that something called Christian nationalism had motivated those who entered the Capitol was made without evidence. It had been a prime opportunity to make a specialization into the topic of the moment, to provide a chaotic situation with some narrative coherence and raise personal profiles to boot; it wasn’t wasted, even if prosecutions would fail to uncover anything particularly religious about participants’ motives. 

The conversations about the phrase have continued since then, as Christian political thinkers and public figures decided that if they were going to be called “Christian nationalists” anyway, they might as well own it. Maybe America was a Christian nation. Maybe it could become one. For a combination of historical and theoretical reasons, some American Christians do believe the United States, a country of many nations, can become a singular nation—a distinct people among the peoples of the earth—by being consecrated or consecrating itself to the temporal and spiritual goods revealed, according to Christian tradition, both in nature and divine revelation. This is a self-conscious Christian nationalism, and those advancing it make sophisticated theological and political-philosophical claims in what largely remains an elite conversation among pastors, academics, and literati. 

Except, of course, when it is pulled into headlines. The professional Christian nationalism–watchers regularly elide the differences between the sociological label, the supposed insurrectionists, and the so-called extremists willing to take the concept seriously. It is a classic rhetorical sleight of hand; perhaps it has a given name somewhere, but I think of it as a sort of “motte and bailey” routine on the attack. In argumentation, the motte and bailey is employed when, under pressure, a less-defensible position is defined down to a defensible one, retreating from the outer fortifications of the bold bailey to the security of the anodyne motte. In the case of Christian nationalism, we see the offensive version, in which the charge of extremism and treason is implied, with protestations that this is a non-pejorative technical description. 

The goal is clear: to make unapologetic conservative Christianity unacceptable in public life. Mike Johnson is being called a Christian nationalist because, while he may not identify as such, he is one, according to the progressive frame. So long as progressives control the frame of Christian nationalism, they can suggest it is disqualifying. One response is to own it, for evangelicals to redefine it for themselves; that conversation is happening. But to wrest the frame from those who hate conservative Christians participating in politics, who will call you a Christian nationalist no matter what you say, the first step is to not care.