Most of the far-right extremist movements that arose online and then in real life over the past decade—the alt-right, white nationalists, and other authoritarian proto-fascists—have been generally ecumenical and areligious in their rhetorical appeals and organizing, other than their frequent expressions of antisemitism. But that’s beginning to change, as Jack Jenkins explored this week at The Washington Post.
With “Groyper” leader Nick Fuentes leading the way, it’s becoming much more common to hear them embracing Christian nationalism—an ideology long embraced by the larger radical right, particularly the so-called “Patriot” movement. Moreover, a number of these white nationalists appear to be pushing even farther into a particularly ugly—and previously stagnant—brand of religious nationalism: Christian Identity, the bigoted theological movement claiming that white people are the true “Children of Israel,” that Jews are the literal descendants of Satan, and that all nonwhite people are soulless “mud people.”
As Jenkins reports, since the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection, Fuentes’ white nationalist “America First” organization has increasingly employed Christian nationalist rhetoric: chanting “Christ is King” at the antiabortion “March for Life” last week and at anti-vaccine protests, using crucifixes as protest symbols, and similar rhetorical appeals. In a speech at the America First conference in Orlando in March at which he declared America “a Christian nation,” Fuentes warned his audience that America will cease to be America “if it loses its White demographic core and if it loses its faith in Jesus Christ.”
“Christian nationalism—and even the idea of separatism, with a subtext of White, Christian and conservative-leaning [influences]—took a more dominant role in the way that extremist groups talk to each other and try to propagandize in public,” Jared Holt of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab told Jenkins.
Christian nationalism has long been a feature of the nation’s extremist right, dating back to the original Ku Klux Klan of the 1860s and its later version in the 1920s. Fuentes’ rhetoric “could have come word-for-word from a Klan speech in 1922,” historian Kelly J. Baker told Jenkins. “The Klan’s goal here was patriotism and nationalism, but it was combined with their focus on White Christianity.”
This worldview was a powerful animating force at the Jan. 6 insurrection, embodied by the moment when the self-described “Patriots” entered the vacated Senate chambers, took over the dais, and proceeded to share a prayer led by Jacob “QAnon Shaman” Chansley.
A video captured by The New Yorker shows the moment: One insurrectionist shouts, “Jesus Christ, we invoke your name!” The men bellow “Amen!” Then Chansley begins to lead them in prayer, saying: “Thank you heavenly father for gracing us with this opportunity to stand up for our God-given inalienable rights.” He also thanks God for allowing them to “exercise our rights, to allow us to send a message to all the tyrants, the communists and the globalists that this is our nation, not theirs.”
He concluded: “Thank you for allowing the United States of America to be reborn. Thank you for allowing us to get rid of the communists, the globalists, and the traitors within our government.”
As journalist Katherine Stewart explained in The New York Times:
A final precondition for the coup attempt was the belief, among the target population, that the legitimacy of the United States government derives from its commitment to a particular religious and cultural heritage, and not from its democratic form. It is astonishing to many that the leaders of the Jan. 6 attack on the constitutional electoral process styled themselves as “patriots.” But it makes a glimmer of sense once you understand that their allegiance is to a belief in blood, earth and religion, rather than to the mere idea of a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
A number of the groups, notably the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, who led the insurrection similarly voiced their affinity for Christian nationalism. The morning of Jan. 6, as Jenkins reports, a group of Proud Boys led by Ethan Nordean—the primary leader of the men who later spearheaded the siege of the Capitol—were seen praying together.
At a gathering of Proud Boys near the Washington Monument on Dec. 11 captured on video by independent journalist Dakota Santiago for Religion News Service, Nordean had spoken about “sacrificing ourselves for our country” while speaking at an impromptu Proud Boys rally near the Washington Monument, according to footage provided to Religion News Service (RNS) by independent journalist Dakota Santiago.
Nordean—a notorious street brawler nicknamed “Rufio Panman”—described an epiphany he had during a protest about Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross:
I had a moment of realization where I was like, “You know what, I’m going to be diehard about everything in my life. I’m gonna be real.” Because everything that we have sacrificed—because you know how hard it is in this environment that we live in—it is time that you rise to the occasion. Be real.
Now you may not believe in that, but it’s important in the very least for my case for me, because this man did this thing. Just as we sacrifice ourselves for our country. A man provides and protects even when he’s not loved. That is what we do. We are hated but we do it in anyway, we keep showing up every day and we protect these people from these tyrannical dictators.
The same religious fervor has intensified in the aftermath of the insurrection, particularly as Patriot movement believers and their mainstream Republican enablers have doubled down with a gaslighting narrative insisting that what happened Jan. 6 wasn’t an insurrection, it was a righteous protest by Real Americans.
That narrative has been ardently adopted by Christian nationalists like the Trump supporters interviewed earlier this month by NPR:
Outside on the walkway, Murray Clemetson stands with an armful of hand-made signs he brought to church, such as, "Set the DC Patriots Free" and "We Are Americans, Not Terrorists." The law-school student and father of three —all home-schooled— was at the "Stop The Steal" rally in Washington, D.C., last year.
"The only insurrection that happened on Jan. 6 was by the agent provocateurs, paid actors, and corrupt police and FBI," he says, disputing all the evidence made public in the more than 700 criminal cases that the rioters were Trump fanatics.
The church the interviewers reported from is Ken Peters’ Patriot Church in Tennessee, one of the nation’s most prominent Christian nationalist congregations. Peters is a rabidly pro-Trump pastor who has appeared onstage in recent months with Mike Lindell, the “My Pillow” conspiracy theorist who claims Donald Trump was the victim of election fraud. Peters also spoke to the crowd gathered in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 5 at a pre-rally for the next day’s “Stop the Steal” protest that devolved into the Capitol insurrection.
Peters’ predilection for linking arms with violent white nationalist thugs like the Proud Boys manifested itself in summer 2021 in Salem, Oregon, outside a Planned Parenthood clinic targeted by Peters’ “Church at Planned Parenthood” campaign. A phalanx of Proud Boys provided “security” for the event, including notorious brawler Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, who is currently in jail awaiting trial on assault charges.
The sermon Peters delivered during NPR’s visit to his church turned a similarly convenient blind eye to Donald Trump’s manifest flaws as a Christian hero. "We consider the left in our nation today to be a giant bully,” Peters said. “And when there is a bully on the schoolyard and somebody rises up and punches back, 'Hallelujah!' So we are thankful for Trump."
Then he added: "But you know what? If Trump passes away tomorrow, God forbid, does that stop us? Does that slow us down? Not one bit. We'll be looking for the next guy to lead the way."
Indeed, the long-term determination of Christian nationalists to impose a narrow sectarian view on American government and society are reflected in its legislative assault on state laws, an attempt to reshape U.S. laws from the ground up as well as the top down. Their program “Project Blitz,” revealed by journalist Frederick Clarkson in 2018—a detailed and complex system of proposed legislation with which Christian nationalist beliefs are gradually embedded within state laws—is only one example of the breadth and depth of their assault on liberal democracy.
"The use of Christian symbols, iconography, Scripture in efforts to dominate and exclude are as old the republic itself," Rev. Fred Davie, executive vice president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, told Trevor Hughes of USA Today. "It's deeply baked into our nation. It's deep, but it's also been proven time and time again to be wrong."
While many Christian nationalists are grounded in more traditional evangelical views, there is also a component who are cynically embracing religious fervor as a way of broadening their community of white supremacists and expanding their recruitment base.
"For them, it's just shorthand for identity," Edward Ahmed Mitchell, deputy executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told Hughes. "There absolutely is a connection between far-right political extremism and far-right religious extremism, but I doubt these people are showing up at church every Sunday and reading their Bibles."
Research sociologist Matthew DeMichele told Hughes that many of today's religious displays are an "intense redeployment of old tactics."
"People don't want to say that this is a country founded on white supremacy. But we know that to be true," DeMichele said. "It's very important to understand that it's not new for white supremacists to have a Christian identity. But it is intriguing there has been the strengthening overlap of the white nationalists and those of Christian Identity."
The striking aspect of the surge of Christian nationalism has been its ability to unify sectors of the radical right, from militia-oriented Patriots to bigoted white nationalists to conspiracists like the authoritarian QAnon cult. Alex Newhouse, deputy director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies Besides faith, told Jenkins that social media had been a powerful vector for this confluence.
“This unification is pretty unprecedented,” Newhouse said. “The infusion of Christian nationalism throughout that unification process has been particularly interesting and, in my opinion, is going to end up being pretty dangerous.”
Newhouse particularly has noticed a sudden uptick, since 2019, of interest in Christian Identity, the infamous religious movement long associated with neo-Nazis, particularly the Aryan Nations operation in the northern Idaho Panhandle between 1978 and 2000, which was an Identity church. Newhouse noted that Christian nationalist appeals may “disguise a much more dangerous uptick in adoption of Christian Identity.”
One of the leading voices in this resurgence of Identity beliefs, Newhouse says, is Kyle Chapman, the cofounder of the Proud Boys-affiliated Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights who later attempted to create an explicitly racist and antisemitic offshoot called “Proud Goys.” (Chapman is currently awaiting trial in Idaho on charges of assaulting a health care worker when he was hospitalized last November.)
Newhouse said Chapman has been interacting with Christian Identity influencers on the encrypted chat platform Telegram, while “blasting out Christian Identity propaganda.” Another key Trumpist figure—QAnon influencer GhostEzra, who has 300,000 followers on Telegram—posted explicit Identity messages. Identity theology—including references to the “two seedline theory,” which claims that Eve also mated with Satan in the Garden of Eden and thus gave birth to Jews—has been popping up with regularity on QAnon and Proud Boys channels on Telegram, Newhouse reported.
“There’s this gradual move toward a more revolutionary, burn-it-all-down posture, and I think Christian Identity for a lot of these people has become a way for them to organize their thoughts,” he said.
As Stewart explained in The NYT, Christian nationalist beliefs are not merely spreading among far-right extremists. Perhaps even more pernicious is their spread among mainstream conservatives in the media and especially within the Republican Party:
National organizations like the Faith & Freedom Coalition and the Ziklag Group, which bring together prominent Republican leaders with donors and religious right activists, feature “Seven Mountains” workshops and panels at their gatherings. Nationalist leaders and their political dependents in the Republican Party now state quite openly what before they whispered to one another over their prayer breakfasts. Whether the public will take notice remains to be seen.
As I’ve observed previously (while reviewing Stewart’s excellent review of Christian nationalism, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism): When viewed through the lens of its real-world outcomes, fundamentalist Christianity is less a coherent theology than it is a form of spiritual or religious totalitarianism, one that requires abject submission to what is actually a very perverse and narrow interpretation of the meaning of scripture.
This approach translated naturally into political authoritarianism—the kind that Donald Trump practices. And Trump in turn has proven very adept at feeding the psychological needs of the kinds of personalities that adhere to such movements.
Many leaders of the Christian right like to dress up in red, white, and blue and announce themselves as true patriots. But they are the same people who seek to pervert our institutions, betray our international alliances, treat the Constitution as a subcategory of their holy texts, demean whole segments of the population, foist their authoritarian creed upon other people’s children, and celebrate the elevation of a “king” to the presidency who made a sport out of violating democratic laws and norms.
We can only be grateful that he is out of power now. And it will be incumbent on everyone who treasures their democratic institutions to do everything in their power to defend them against this lethal tide of extremism now.