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Welcome To Gilead—The Creeping Threat Of Christian Nationalism
A recent survey shows over half of Republicans support Christian nationalism.
Separation of church and state. It’s a bedrock principle of our country, one which our founders emphasized would be critical to our future and hoped would endure the test of history.
Today we see, disturbingly, they were quite prescient in their concerns.
Many on the right have openly embraced “Christian nationalism” as a goal, even though it is wholly anathema to our fundamental democratic values and cherished personal freedoms.
How have we stumbled our way toward the Gilead America of The Handmaid’s Tale? And how do we fight back against it?
That’s today’s subject in The Big Picture.
— George Takei
Last spring, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s unprecedented leak of their monumental Dobbs decision, The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood published an essay in The Atlantic titled:
“I Invented Gilead. The Supreme Court Is Making It Real”
In it, she recounted having given up writing her seminal work several times, thinking the premise was “too far-fetched.”
Not so much today, lamented Atwood:
"Silly me. Theocratic dictatorships do not lie only in the distant past: There are a number of them on the planet today.
"What is to prevent the United States from becoming one of them?"
Less than two months later the Supreme Court’s conservative Christian majority would go on to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Indeed, there is a movement afoot to make an American theocracy a reality, and while it may still sound far-fetched to many today, it has earned the support of an alarming percentage of the country, particularly in red states led by Republican legislative majorities and governors.
What Exactly is “Christian Nationalism”?
Christian nationalism is the belief that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and that our laws should reflect Biblical teaching, while characterizing the whole notion of separation of church and state as a “myth.”
Or to quote Colorado Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert:
“I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk.”
40 years ago, such a philosophy was the province of the “Christian right” fringe, best represented by Jerry Falwell, Sr., whose Moral Majority began to establish the Christian nationalist movement as part of Republican politics.
After helping lift Ronald Reagan into office, Falwell famously said in a 1981 speech:
"Our great nation was founded by godly men upon godly principles to be a Christian nation."
How proud Falwell would be, then, to see that a 2022 University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll found a clear majority of Republican voters—61 percent—in support of “declaring the U.S. a Christian nation.”
And a 2022 Pew Research Center survey found 68% of American Christians (and 67% of Republicans) agree the Bible should have “a great deal or some influence on U.S. laws.”
54 percent of Republican voters either indicated they are adherents to Christian nationalism (21 percent) or sympathizers (33 percent) of such a movement, as defined by several values-based criteria including:
the U.S. government should declare America a Christian nation
U.S. laws should be based on Christian values
God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society
The percentage of strict adherents to Christian nationalism within the GOP is approximately four times that of either Democrats (5 percent) or Independents (6 percent) and is more than twice the percentage of Americans overall (10 percent) who hold that view.
Not coincidentally, while the poll finds Donald Trump with a mere 32 percent favorability rating among all respondents, 71 percent of Christian nationalist adherents and 57 percent of sympathizers view Trump favorably.
The newly minted GOP House majority—particularly members of the Pro-Trump chaos caucus to whom Kevin McCarthy owes his Speakership—also falls within this cohort.
Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene—who now sits on two very powerful House committees—famously self-identifies as a Christian nationalist:
"We need to be the party of nationalism. I am a Christian and I say it proudly, we should be Christian nationalists."
And Rep. Lauren Boebert put an even finer point on it, saying:
“The church is supposed to direct the government.”
They’re not even trying to hide it anymore. Because to the Greenes, Boeberts and their ilk, there is nothing to hide. They relish giving a national platform to an ideology already deeply rooted in modern “conservative” America, one that is driving legislation from the local level up.
Christian Nationalists’ Anti-Abortion Crusade
Back in 1981, just eight years after Roe v Wade was decided, Jerry Falwell Sr. wrote:
“If we expect God to honor and bless our nation, we must take a stand against abortion.”
The conservative Christian movement embraced this sentiment whole-heartedly, organizing politically and infiltrating state legislatures in a decades-long fight against abortion rights. By the time the Supreme Court overturned Roe last June, elected Republicans around the country had regularly and without reservation expressed Christian nationalist rhetoric in the context of anti-abortion governance.
In 2019, Alabama Republicans passed what was at the time the most extreme anti-abortion law in the United States.
Upon signing it, Governor Kay Ivey issued the following statement:
“…this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God.”
Also in 2019, Missouri passed a trigger law outlawing all abortions immediately upon the overturning of Roe with the only exception for “medical emergency.” During the writing and passage of the law, legislators openly discussed their Christian faith.
They declared for example:
“Life begins at conception. Psalms 119 says …,’
‘God doesn't give us a choice in this area. He is the Creator of life.”
The Missouri anti-abortion legislation specifically includes the refrain “God is the creator of Life.”
Then in 2021, South Carolina passed a six-week abortion ban, urged by anti-abortion activists who demanded the state legislature “model the state law after the Bible’s teachings.”
No wonder, then, that the overturning of Roe by a Christian nationalist-friendly Supreme Court, stacked heavily by ex-President Trump, would inspire Atwood to issue her warning about a creeping American theocracy.
But while the rollback of abortion rights was what set off the alarm bells, abortion is hardly alone among issues driven by this radical movement.
The Right’s Anti-LGBTQ+ Crusade is a Christian Nationalist Movement
In 2016, Georgia Rep. Rick Allen offered a prayer during a Republican conference meeting ahead of a vote to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
His choice of Bible verses was quite pointed, including Romans 1:18-32 and Revelations 22:18-19, which some Christians interpret to discuss the consequences of homosexual behavior:
“Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death.”
While this was met with walkouts by some of his fellow Republican members, there was no official sanction, indeed no consequence at all, for such a stunt in the Republican caucus even seven years ago.
As with Greene and Boebert today, Allen was simply elevating a sentiment that had already taken hold in Christian conservative circles around the country, particularly in the wake of The Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision, which made same-sex marriage legal throughout the United States.
The backlash against that decision is still being felt today and extends beyond just trying to roll back gay rights. Conservatives are going after transgender rights with particular vigor.
While the right’s faith-based opposition to same-sex marriage and gay rights is well known (“It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve…”), the Biblical roots of the right’s anti-trans crusade are less well understood.
And while the growing anti-trans movement is often framed as a parent-led movement to “protect children,” a trope that goes back centuries, it’s actually Christian nationalists leading this crusade, as Sarah Posner reported for Insider last year.
As she put it, the Christian nationalist worldview:
“…maintains that the law must be consistent with sex and gender strictures ordained by God.
"The Christian right has targeted trans rights in particular because they contend—contrary to established medical and scientific evidence—that a person cannot deviate from ‘God's design’ for men and women.”
And sure enough, at the beginning of March 2023, the ACLU is now tracking 382 anti-transgender bills throughout the U.S. including 7 states that banned gender-affirming care for transgender youth with many more considering similar anti-trans legislation.
In 2022, Alabama made history by becoming the first state in the U.S. to impose criminal penalties–namely up to 10 years in prison–on doctors who provided gender-affirming care to children under the age of 18.
When she signed the bill, Governor Ivey justified her support for the legislation by invoking God:
“I believe very strongly that if the Good Lord made you a boy, you are a boy, and if he made you a girl, you are a girl.
"We should especially protect our children from these radical, life-altering drugs and surgeries when they are at such a vulnerable stage in life.
"Instead, let us all focus on helping them to properly develop into the adults God intended them to be.”
But it was not the first bill to prohibit such care. That distinction went to Arkansas’ so-called Save Adolescents From Experimentation (or SAFE) Act, which would “ban doctors from providing or referring transgender and gender non-conforming minors for gender-affirming health care.”
The Arkansas legislature passed the legislation over GOP Governor Asa Hutchinson’s veto in 2021. Its author, State Rep. Robin Lundstrum, is an Evangelical Christian who, like Boebert and Greene, makes no effort to hide her ideology.
"It's our duty as Christians to take care of our Christian nation"
"our Constitution came out of the Bible."
Arkansas’ SAFE Act has been halted in the courts. But passing bills that get blocked by courts is a feature not a bug of the religious right’s strategy.
They regularly pass laws that impose their Biblical view on the citizenry, export them to other states as “model” legislation, then wait for them to be challenged in court in the hopes the Christian nationalist-friendly SCOTUS majority will uphold them.
Seen in this light, the Dobbs decision was not just the culmination of this decades-long strategy, it is a sign of what is yet to come.
Back to the 17th Century
The use of biblical principles to shape U.S. law is, of course, the very scenario Atwood imagined decades ago in The Handmaid’s Tale.
She based her imagined theocratic hellscape on 17th-century Puritans who fled England not solely due to religious persecution, but also to establish a society where they could live out their beliefs, including the notions that it is the government’s role to enforce moral standards, and that romantic relationships should be based on the Old Testament.
Atwood recounted her inspiration for Gilead in The Atlantic:
“In the fictional theocracy of Gilead, women had very few rights, as in 17th-century New England. The Bible was cherry-picked, with the cherries being interpreted literally.
"Based on the reproductive arrangements in Genesis—specifically, those of the family of Jacob—the wives of high-ranking patriarchs could have female slaves, or ‘handmaids,’ and those wives could tell their husbands to have children by the handmaids and then claim the children as theirs.”
Not coincidentally, this is the same era Justice Alito harkened back to in order to ground his “legal” basis for his Dobbs opinion overturning Roe.
As Atwood puts it, back to:
“...English jurisprudence from the 17th century.”
Specifically, Alito looked back to the jurisprudence of Sir Matthew Hale, a strict Puritan, who in 1673 declared abortion “a crime.” Hale is known for having also written a treatise defending marital rape and having put two women to death for witchcraft.
But we need only look back to Alito’s own jurisprudence, a mere three decades ago while he still served on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, to see a preview of his own Handmaid’s Tale-like decision to come.
In 1991’s Planned Parenthood v Casey, the 3-member panel of the Third Circuit Court overturned a Pennsylvania law that required a woman to notify her husband before getting an abortion. Alito was the sole dissenter on the panel, asserting it was no “undue burden” for women to let their husbands know of their decision to get an abortion.
That a lone dissenter in 1991 on Casey has since become the majority opinion writer in 2022 speaks volumes about the rush toward Gilead the U.S. has taken in recent years.
Christian Nationalists’ Movement to Make America a White Nation
To Christian nationalists, The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t a cautionary tale at all—it’s an aspirational one.
And the world Christian nationalists want to build is not just about making America straight and cisgender, or about returning men to their supposed rightful place in the social hierarchy. It is also about making America a White nation.
The PRRI/Brookings Institution survey found Christian nationalist adherence correlates directly with anti-Black racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and antisemitism, all of which are baked into the White Christian nationalist worldview.
As Sarah Posner told Church and State Magazine in 2021:
“The American version of Christian nationalism grew out of a backlash to changes that took place over the course of the second half of the 20th century—school desegregation and civil rights, increasing secularization and the Supreme Court’s bolstering of church-state separation and the rise of feminism and LGBTQ rights.
"All of these factors played a role, but it’s crucial to recognize how grievances driving the backlash were deeply rooted in the White supremacy many evangelicals and fundamentalists were taught to find in their Bibles.
"That in turn shaped their conception of America as a Christian nation—that is, a White Christian nation.”
This helps explain how a Christian conservative movement could become so enamored with someone so clearly irreligious as Donald Trump.
That desire for a rollback of rights for anyone who isn’t a straight, white, Caucasian, Christian male was embedded in Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan and spoke to the very heart of the movement’s strictest adherents.
In fact, Christian nationalism has reached all corners of the far-right universe, including QAnon and Proud Boys, as we saw repeatedly on January 6th.
As Religion News Service documented shortly after the attack:
"As throngs surged toward a barricade manned by a vastly outnumbered handful of police, a white flag appeared above the masses, flapping in the wind: It featured an ichthys—also known as a 'Jesus fish'—painted with the colors of the American flag.
"Above the symbol, the words: 'Proud American Christian'.
"It was one of several prominent examples of religious expression that occurred in and around the storming of the Capitol…Before and even during the attack, insurrectionists appealed to faith as both a source of strength as well as justification for their assault on the seat of American democracy.
"While not all participants were Christian, their rhetoric often reflected an aggressive, charismatic and hypermasculine form of Christian nationalism—a fusion of God and country that has lashed together disparate pieces of Donald Trump’s religious base."
This underscores perhaps the gravest threat the movement poses to our nation, which was also revealed in the Brookings Institution survey: Christian nationalism’s love of anti-democratic authoritarianism.
"Supporters of Christian nationalism tend to support obedience to authority and the idea of authoritarian leaders who are willing to break the rules…”
"Only about three in ten Americans (28%) agree that 'because things have gotten so far off track in this country, we need a leader who is willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes to set things right'.
"However, nearly four in ten Christian nationalism sympathizers (38%) and half of Christian nationalism adherents (50%) support this notion of an authoritarian leader."
As Andrew Whitehead, co-author of Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States describes it:
“Christian nationalism really tends to draw on kind of an Old Testament narrative, a kind of blood purity and violence where the Christian nation needs to be defended against the outsiders.
“It really is identity-based and tribal, where there’s an us-versus-them.”
Welcome to Gilead, indeed.
So How Do We Fight Back Against Creeping Christian Nationalism?
If there is a silver lining from the last few years of American politics, it is this: Despite Donald Trump’s best efforts—in concert with White Christian nationalists who were, as Sarah Posner puts it, “Trump’s dedicated partners in his anti-democracy project”—our democracy held.
Barely at times, but it held.
And now the danger is far clearer to many Americans. The radical movement to use the Republican Party and the courts to impose Christian doctrine on the rest of the nation is not fringe, it is real and at the center of GOP policy.
That has served as a wake-up call. After the GOP-controlled SCOTUS overturned 50 years of abortion rights in the summer of 2022, an outraged coalition beat back an abortion restriction amendment in Kansas, a traditionally red state, sending it to a resounding defeat.
Anti-extremist voters then turned out in force in the 2022 midterms to give Democrats a stronger Senate majority and keep Republican gains to a minimal House majority, contrary to strong historical precedent.
That energy has continued into a 2023 special primary election for a Wisconsin State Supreme Court seat, which will determine the fate of abortion rights in that state.
The liberal candidate, Janet Protasiewicz, made abortion rights the center of her campaign and drew 45.6 percent of the 4-way vote—more than the sum of the two leading conservative candidates—signaling a strong turnout by liberal voters in an off-year special judicial election.
In April, she will go up against a rightwing former state supreme court justice Daniel Kelly who once declared the 2015 Obergefell decision “illegitimate.”
But preventing conservative politicians and judges from gaining a foothold at the ballot box is only part of the work needed. Democracy’s defenders will also need to organize at the most local level and run for office themselves.
Just as a radical Christian nationalist minority managed to take over school boards and state legislative seats throughout the past decades, so now must a pro-democracy majority work to do the same. Crucially, that majority includes people of all faiths as well as those with no faith at all.
In the coming years, if democratic secularism succeeds over Christian nationalism—as it must—a Gilead-like theocracy can remain merely within the pages of dystopian fiction and not become the dark future of America.