Leading Amidst Christian Nationalism


Lovett H. Weems Jr. outlines seven strategies for responding to Christian nationalism in measured and faithful ways. Church leaders should try to help congregants put their love of country in perspective as people of faith while not expressing judgment or devaluing the feelings of loss that often give rise to today’s iteration of Christian nationalism.  

Talk of Christian nationalism can be confusing. While it includes “Christian” in the name, it is not a religious movement but a political one. Likewise, it includes “national” though it excludes what many understand as the history and values of the United States.   

The fact is that most of us have grown up in, and contributed to, a softer version of Christian nationalism that was often called “civil religion.” Many of our churches have an American flag even as we affirm that we worship a God of all nations and peoples. Some of us will sing secular patriotic songs in church around July 4. Or do you recall participating in a public event that included a Christian prayer? These are all things that were taken for granted in an era much more religiously monolithic than today.  

Christian nationalism begins with the belief that the United States was, from the beginning, defined by its Christian faith and that this religious identity is essential to the nation’s identity. This position holds that Christian values and leaders should have a privileged place in shaping the future of the country. Most reflecting this set of views today narrow the focus further to identify a version of white Protestant Christianity as the standard by which faithfulness is judged.  

While those intent on merging national values and religious values today are seen primarily among the religious right, for much of U.S. history, the blurring of lines between nation and faith came from mainline Protestant denominations. Until just beyond the middle of the twentieth century, mainline Protestantism served as an unofficial state church. Their leaders were prominent in national conversations and appeared on magazine covers. With this level of influence, most were eager to display the assumed “civil religion” of the times, even though it left out many who were outside their faith traditions. 

Today is different 

Nevertheless, there is a qualitative difference between the “civil religion” of the 1950s and the Christian nationalism of today. They both fit a definition of Christian nationalism, but today’s version places far more emphasis on a narrative of “Christians under siege” that fails to match reality. It attacks groups that do not fit a particular religious and moral stance and is antagonistic toward some not born in the United States. It also interprets religious freedom in a way that goes beyond the right to worship to permitting discrimination against people with different beliefs or practices.  

Christian nationalism can undermine the efforts of Christians and others seeking a new era in which no one religious or racial group has the inordinate power of the past. From early times, Anglo-Protestantism was dominant and shaped much of the nation’s life. As recently as the early 1970s, 62 percent of people in the country identified as Protestant, according to sociologist Mark Chaves. By 2014, slightly fewer than half were Protestant. Even more dramatic is the change in those identifying as Christian. The Pew Research Center reports that in 1972, 90 percent identified as Christian while that percentage declined to 64 percent by 2020. Christians are projected to fall below 50 percent in this century. In this, some see a nation passing away that they once assumed to be normative. 

Christian nationalism and race 

There’s one other cause for concern. The term “white Christian nationalism” is often used for good reason. There is often a racial component. Researchers have discovered that the growing religious diversity of the nation is of far less concern for Christian nationalists than the increasing racial diversity. The 2020 U.S. Census reported that for the first time, the white population of the United States decreased. While the change was small, the contrast with the growth of every other racial group during the past ten years was striking.  

Sociologists Samuel L. Perry and Andrew L. Whitehead are recognized experts on Christian nationalism. Their books and articles show that a movement appearing to be race-neutral is infused with racial prejudice toward non-whites. In a scholarly article written with Joshua B. Grubbs (“Race over Religion: Christian Nationalism and Perceived Threats to National Unity,” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, April 2024), they demonstrate that “Christian nationalism is fundamentally racialized” and views racial diversity as a national threat more so than religious diversity. They say, “It cloaks racial ideology in religious rhetoric,” and that appeals to Christian nationalism “are ultimately racial before they are religious.”  

What can leaders do? 

1. Be cautious. 

The faith by which we live and the loyalty to country that we proudly affirm can live together. Some in our communities may be using language of Christian nationalism without intending the meanings that are central to the political movement that has developed. They may read and hear positions on social media or television with which they feel some connection without intending to affirm all that is in the wider movement.  

2. Do not devalue legitimate patriotism and love of country.   

People are tempted to put many things ahead of God as their locus of ultimate meaning. Nation is one but not the only one. Help people put their love of country in perspective as people of faith. Remember, when you devalue the values that matter to people, they respond by clinging more tightly to those values. 

3. Stay humble and avoid naming villains.  

It is true that Christian nationalism is most prominent today among evangelical Christians but not all evangelicals are Christian nationalists. Significant resistance to the claims of Christian nationalists come from evangelicals.   

4. Stay positive.  

Instead of being against something, identify those topics that truly represent legitimate themes from our faith and the nation’s history to celebrate—such as being a nation of freedom for all religions, a nation of immigrants, and a nation of rich diversity.  

5. Do not get distracted by small battles.  

Do what you can to keep the focus on God and faith around patriotic holidays. Now is probably not the time to take on the “flag in the sanctuary” issue. 

6. Remind people that Christians are still called to have a witness in society.  

Faith should influence how Christians engage public issues, including voting. But this witness is not to harm and marginalize those with whom they disagree but rather to support policies that enhance the common good.  

7. Understand the broader social, historical, and political landscape that has given rise to the current iteration of Christian nationalism.  

One of the sad things about such movements is that they find their support among people who feel left out in one way or another. These may very well be people in your congregations.  

Many today are feeling a sense of loss that can easily be exploited by political rhetoric around Christian nationalism. Church leaders can acknowledge that sense of loss and offer help in putting their congregants’ concerns, faith, and love of country in more positive perspectives without expressing judgment or devaluing their feelings. 

 Related Resources


About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems Jr. is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.

Cover of Discovering God's Future for Your Church showing a blank wooden signpostLewis Center video tool kit resource
Discovering God’s Future for Your Church

Discovering God’s Future for Your Church is a turn-key tool kit to help your congregation discern and implement God’s vision for its future. The resource guides your church in discovering clues to your vision in your history and culture, your current congregational strengths and weaknesses, and the needs of your surrounding community. The tool kit features videos, leader’s guides, discussion exercises, planning tools, handouts, diagrams, worksheets, and more. Learn more and watch an introductory video now.