Asked whether the United States is a Christian nation, about half of Americans surveyed answer yes.1 The conclusion that America is a Christian nation is not descriptive but aspirational: over half of Americans believe that being Christian is either “very” or “somewhat” important to being a good American.
Throughout the United States, many sessions of local government start with “legislative prayers.” That is, in addition to a call to order, or a recitation of the national pledge, local political gatherings from state legislatures to town commissions to school boards begin their meetings with a prayer to God. With some frequency, these prayers have been overwhelmingly or exclusively Christian.2
The proliferation of Christian legislative prayers at local governments around the country both reflects and strengthens Christian nationalism. Christian nationalism posits that the United States has always been, and should always remain, a Christian nation in both its culture and government. If a true America is Christian, it follows that true Americans are Christian. The corollary is that non-Christians are not real Americans. In short, Christian nationalism necessarily implies a hierarchy based on religion, with religious insiders who truly belong and religious outsiders who do not.
Notably, this hierarchy is not solely a religious one. Christian nationalism has a racial dimension to it, so that the mythical Christian America pictured is actually a white Christian America.3 As one historian noted, “Christian nationalism has always been connected with whiteness. It has always been about [the idea of] America’s founding by white Christians.”4 That is, “Christian nationalism contains a distinct ethno-racial component and suggests that white Christian nationalists desire to either ‘protect’ or ‘restore’ America’s ‘Christian heritage’ is laced with an implicit desire to maintain white supremacy and white racial purity.”5 Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Christian nationalists are white.6
Studies show that Americans who strongly identify with Christian nationalism have more hostile attitudes towards outgroups, religious and otherwise. In other words, Christian nationalists are not only more antagonistic to non-Christians, they are more antagonistic to outgroups such as LGBT couples,7 racial minorities,8 and immigrants.9 For example, Christian nationalism is correlated with unwillingness to have one’s daughter marry someone who is non-white.10 This hostility paves the way for hostile public policy, whether it be allowing discrimination against non-Christians by foster care agencies11 or implementing a Muslim ban. Consequently, Christian nationalism does not simply lead to symbolic exclusion from the community and nation, it may lead to actual exclusion.
The Supreme Court has rejected an Establishment Clause challenges to Christian legislative prayers. This is a mistake. Even if not specifically motivated by Christian nationalism, Christian legislative prayers nonetheless advance a Christian nationalist agenda. Consequently, government prayers that are mostly or entirely Christian violate the Establishment Clause and should be automatically unconstitutional, full stop. After all, one of the goals of the Establishment Clause is to stave off developments like Christian nationalism and its religious (and racial) hierarchies.
For more, please check out my essay: Christian Legislative Prayers and Christian Nationalism. Comments welcome!
Caroline Mala Corbin, vice president of the Humanist Legal Society, is a Professor of Law at the University of Miami School of Law.
1. University of Minnesota—The American Mosaic Project, Boundaries in the American Mosaic: Preliminary Findings Report 8 (2014), https://cla.umn.edu/sociology/graduate/collaboration-opportunities/american-mosaic-project-amp.
2. Penny Edgell, An Agenda for Research on American Religion in Light of the 2016 Election, 78 Soc. of Relig.: Q. Rev. 1, 6 (2017).
3. Rhys Williams, Civil Religion and the Cultural Politics of National Identity in Obama’s America, 52 J. for the Sci. Stud. of Relig. 239, 243 (2013) (“[T]here has long been a sub rosa association that made ‘white Christian American’ as the baseline, default cultural understanding of this nation.”).
4. Tara Isabella Burton, What One Pastor’s anti-Nike protest Says about Religion and Nationalism in America, Vox (quoting historian Joe Fea).
5. Samuel L. Perry & Andrew L. Whitehead, Christian Nationalism and White Racial Boundaries: Examines Whites’ Opposition to Interracial Marriage, 38 Ethnic & Racial Stud. 1671, 1685 (2015).
6. Id. at 1685.
7. Andrew L. Whitehead & Samuel L. Perry, A More Perfect Union? Christian Nationalism and Support for Same-sex Unions, 58 Soc. Persp. 422, 423 (2015).
8. Perry & Whitehead, supra note 5, at 1683.
9. Eric Leon McDaniel, Irfan Nooruddin, & Allyson Faith Shortle, Divine Boundaries: How Religion Shapes Citizens Attitudes Towards Immigrants, 39 Am. Pol. Res. 205, 205 (2011).
10. Perry & Whitehead, supra note 5, at 1683.
11. Tim Fitzsimons & AP, S.C. Group Can Reject Gays and Jews as Foster Parents, Trump Admin Says, NBCNews.com (Jan. 24, 2019, 12:00 PM), https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/s-c-group-can-reject-gays-jews-foster-parents-trump-n962306.