Q&A With Author Mark David Hall: Christian Nationalism ‘Far More Benign Than Critics Believe’

By Jovan Tripkovic

May 14, 2024

“Christian nationalism” is a term frequently associated with former President Donald Trump and his closest political allies. Over the years, the phrase has become a label used by left-leaning pundits and media to describe most Republican politicians and their policies.

While it has been overhyped by some, not many have a deep understanding of the label and issues surrounding its origins and meaning. Mark David Hall, a professor at Regent University’s Robertson School of Government and a senior fellow at the Center for Religion, Culture and Democracy, is the country’s leading expert on Christian nationalism and the history of religious freedom in the United States.

Hall’s new book — “Who’s Afraid of Christian Nationalism” — shines a light on the debate around Christian nationalism following the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol, which is often characterized by unfounded claims, lots of name-calling and plenty of fear-mongering.


“Who’s Afraid of Christian Nationalism” (you can read an excerpt here) is a must-read for anyone interested in gaining insight into the phenomenon of Christian nationalism. Hall sat down with Religion Unplugged‘s Jovan Tripkovic to discuss his book.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Jovan Tripkovic: Your book deals with Christian nationalism. The term itself is widely used and misused by many in the media. It seems that everyone on the right who opposes the left is described as a Christian nationalist. To begin, let me ask you to clarify what Christian nationalism is.

Mark David Hall: Prior to 2006, almost no one was using the phrase “Christian nationalism.” Beginning in 2006, critics started using it to describe a toxic ideology that conflated God and country — specifically, in this case, the United States of America. The term is used to describe a toxic stew of racism, sexism, homophobia, militarism … pretty much every bad “ism” that you can think of.

They’re using it as a very critical term, aiming to shame Christians who believe they need to bring their faith into the public square to advocate for ideas disfavored by critics — for instance, advocating for the sanctity of human life or religious liberty. Most of the critics go out of their way to say that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was an excellent Christian activist because they agree with the goals he was seeking (and, to be clear, I do as well).

That’s how the phrase was usually used until 2022. That year, for the first time, some Christians started to think that they could rehabilitate this term. Instead of running from it, they decided to embrace it. … In the book, I offer my own definition of Christian nationalism. I think of it as something that’s far more benign than the critics believe. Yet, it is still problematic. I provide prudential, constitutional, biblical and theological reasons that Christians and others should reject any type of Christian nationalism.

Tripkovic: What motivated you to write this book?

Hall: On Jan. 6, 2021, I was flying home from a speaking engagement. During my layover, I received an email from a reporter asking me to comment on the Christian images among the rioters at Capitol Hill. This was the first I’d heard about the riot. While I was waiting for her to email me, I scrolled through all the images I could find and videotape of the riot.

Let me first make it clear that I was horrified by the riot. But what I saw among the rioters was a sea of American flags, Trump flags and MAGA hats — no Christian images. The reporter sent me four or five slides of Christian images. Most of them weren’t from anywhere near Capitol Hill. Those that were included the Pine State flag, a Revolutionary era flag that has the words “Appeal to God” on it. But the rioter could have had the flag because it was from the Revolutionary era, and the phrase about appealing to God could be from Locke’s Second Treatise. I suggested the reporter be cautious about attributing the attack to Christian nationalism, but she completely ignored my caution.

I had written about 12 academic books up to this point. I’ve done a lot of work on religion and the American founding, religious liberty, and church-state relations. However, I hadn’t really done much contemporary stuff. As I mentioned before, this Christian nationalism idea is relatively new. I read literally every book and article I could find on American Christian nationalism. I was just shocked at how bad this literature is. Most of it is polemical in nature, written by journalists or activists. They mostly rely on rhetoric or simply make things up. Their claims are oftentimes easily disproved. … For the first time in 2022, books advocating for Christian nationalism emerged. As a Christian, I have to say that I find their arguments to be particularly bad. My book contains a chapter responding to them.

Tripkovic: The mainstream media constantly mention the term “Christian nationalism” in their news reports. One might think that the majority of GOP voters identify as Christian nationalists. Can you tell me how many Americans are familiar with the phrase and how many of them truly identify as Christian nationalists?

Hall: Pew conducted a great study in 2022 and replicated it just a few months ago. They found that 54% of Americans haven’t even heard of the phrase “Christian nationalism.” Only 5% of the American population has a positive view of it, whereas 25% has a negative view of the phenomenon. The rest simply don’t have an opinion. It is possible that the 5% who have a positive view might equate Christian nationalism with something like Christian patriotism. If so, even this figure isn’t particularly problematic. And there is little reason to think that this small group is racist, sexist, homophobic, militaristic, etc. My definition of “Christian nationalism” largely involves a government favoring Christianity above all other religions. Roughly 20% of Americans can reasonably be described as Christian nationalists of that stripe.

Tripkovic: Dozens of politicians from the Republican Party, including Ted Cruz, J.D. Vance, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump, among others, have been characterized as Christian nationalists. How many of these individuals self-identify as Christian nationalists?

Hall: To my knowledge, of all elected members of Congress, only Marjorie Taylor Greene self-identifies as a Christian nationalist. It’s possible that some of these other folks have done so and I’ve missed it. Some candidates in 2022 may have done so as well, but I think it’s just a tiny handful. A politician would have to be a fool to identify as a Christian nationalist. Christian nationalism has just been a slur. It’s been a critical term for over a dozen years. Why would one identify with this view that is generally perceived negatively?

Tripkovic: You mentioned earlier that only 5% of Americans have a favorable view of Christian nationalism and that only one prominent Republican politician identifies as one. These numbers tell a different story from what is portrayed in the left-leaning media. What could be the reason for liberal journalists to push the story of Christian nationalism?

Hall: Most journalists, especially at the national level, are secular progressives. Frankly, I think they enjoy portraying political conservatives as mean-spirited theocrats.

Tripkovic: The religious freedom movement is often described by the media and think tanks as another form of Christian bigotry and nationalism. However, organizations like the Becket Fund defend Muslims, Jews and others. What lies behind this intentional characterization of religious freedom? Fifty years ago, religious freedom was a nonpartisan issue. The ACLU handled free speech and religious freedom cases, among others. What has changed?

Hall: Back in the late 20th century, everyone understood that religious liberty means more than the freedom to worship. It means that you get to act upon your religious convictions whenever possible. But of course, there must be some limitations; we aren’t going to allow someone to sacrifice a baby to the sun god. In the 21st century, progressives started to think that religious freedom should be confined largely within the walls of a church, mosque or a synagogue. Progressives believe that people shouldn’t be allowed to bring faith into the public square, run a business according to their religious convictions by, for instance, declining to participate in a same-sex wedding ceremony. Progressives believe that this is not a matter of religious liberty. They think it’s a matter of religious bigotry.

Tripkovic: A few months ago, Matthew Schmitz, founder and editor of Compact magazine, posted an interesting tweet pointing out the obsession of publishing houses about America becoming a theocracy. Do you think that Christian nationalism is just a trendy obsession of the media and publishers that comes and goes around presidential elections?

Hall: The rise of the so-called religious right in the late 1970s sparked a stream of books decrying so-called theocratic conservatives. Prior to 2006, the literature didn’t usually use the phrase “Christian nationalism.” The anti-religious right literature morphed into anti-Christian nationalism literature in 2006. For my book proposal, I put together a list of all the books on Christian nationalism; there were at least 20 books against it. And now we have three books arguing for the virtues of Christian nationalism.

I am critical of all this literature. I am critical of both the critics and Christians who actually advocate for Christian nationalism. But I should be clear that the three books advocating for Christian nationalism are not advocating for the toxic stew of racism, sexism and militarism.

Tripkovic: While it’s clear that Christian nationalists are a tiny minority of the U.S. electorate, do you believe they wield significant influence within the conservative movement and the Republican Party?

Hall: I think a tiny fraction of 1% of Americans actually embrace the form of Christian nationalism described by [Authors Andrew] Whitehead and [Samuel] Perry … the sort of people who showed up at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017. But the Republican Party does have Christians who want governments to favor Christianity over other religions by, for instance, having Congress declare America to be a Christian country or by permitting public school teachers to lead children in Christian prayers. I explain why these goals are ill-conceived in my book.

Tripkovic: In your book, you mentioned that many works criticizing Christian nationalism are polemical. Which book or books would you recommend to our readers for a credible critique of Christian nationalism?

Hall: I don’t like many of them, but the best is Tobias Cremer’s “The Godless Crusade.” He compares religious nationalism in Germany, France and the United States. Among other things, he shows that many advocates, especially in Europe, are not actually people of faith.

Tripkovic: And what about books that promote the ideas of Christian nationalism?

Hall: Stephen Wolfe’s “The Case for Christian Nationalism” is a very dense book. It’s a revision of his doctoral dissertation. It’s the most serious book arguing for Christian nationalism.

Tripkovic: Since the Unite the Right rally and Jan. 6, journalists and scholars have been associating white nationalism with Christian nationalism. Do these two ideologies have anything in common?

Hall: There is a shift in the literature. Whitehead and Perry embarrassingly found that 85% of African Americans are Christian nationalists. Remember that, for them, Christian nationalism includes racism. How can this be? Surely, we are assured by them, we all know that African Americans can’t be racists, sexists, militarists, etc. They’ve shifted in the direction of talking about white Christian nationalism. It’s bad when White people are Christian nationalists, but African American Christian nationalists are just fine. We don’t have to worry about them.

I do have a section in my book about white Christian nationalists who believe the white race should be favored and protected above all other races. People from other races should be kept from coming to America. I think only a tiny fraction of 1% of Americans embrace this view. And it is notable that racists often don’t like Christianity because they understand that Christianity teaches that all men and women are made in the image of God and should be treated with respect and dignity.

Tripkovic: What does the Bible say about nationalism?

Hall: That’s a very good question. When the Bible references “nations,” the Hebrew or Greek word actually means “people,” not nation-states, which are a relatively modern phenomenon. I don’t think there’s anything in the Bible that says people shouldn’t congregate and form people groups or even nation-states. Let me focus for a minute on the United States. I happen to be an American citizen. America is a nation-state by any definition. I think it’s a wonderful nation-state and I love it.

I am a patriotic American. Nationalism has a negative connotation. People usually use it to describe an inordinate love of country. They believe one should support one’s country regardless of whether it is right or wrong. I don’t think Christians should embrace this understanding of nationalism. Our first allegiance is to God. We are citizens of the kingdom of God.

Tripkovic: Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, wrote a piece on Christian nationalism versus Christian conservatism. What are the differences between the two?

Hall: Mark and I see eye-to-eye on these matters, and he was kind enough to endorse my book. We both think the literature criticizing Christian nationalism is silly, and we are both critical of the handful of advocates for it like Stephen Wolfe. Mark and I agree that it is fine for Christians to be patriotic, that it is OK to advocate for values informed by our faith, but that Christians should not be consumed with an inordinate love of country.

Tripkovic: What is the future for Christian nationalism? Should we be concerned about the United States turning into the Christian theocracy depicted in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’?

Hall: There’s no chance of that happening — none whatsoever. I don’t think there is a chance of that happening at a local level, even if the Supreme Court were to come up with a very different understanding of the Establishment Clause. You wouldn’t see that even in places like Alabama, Louisiana or Mississippi. I would just be perfectly happy to be done with the whole Christian nationalism conversation. Let’s move away from it. Instead, let’s have a good, honest and accurate discussion of racism, sexism and militarism in America. These things exist; they’re wrong. We should be critical of them.

I think people on the left and the right should be able to join hands and work out sensible policies — for instance, protecting the religious liberty of all Americans, just like they did when they passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993. It passed 97-3 in the Senate, without objection in the House, and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. It simply makes the point that we really need to move away from this divisive political discourse.