by Brian Taylor and Jeremy Fuzy

Editor’s Note: Rev. Brian Kaylor is editor of Word&Way, and Dr. Jeremy Fuzy is Word&Way’s digital editor. This post appeared originally in Word&Way’s e-newsletter, A Public Witnessand is reposted here by permission.

“Some will say now that I am calling America a Christian nation. And so I am. And some will say I am advocating Christian Nationalism. And so I do.”

Sen. Josh Hawley made that declaration to applause at the National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C., on Monday (July 8). For those who have followed the Republican senator from Missouri, the idea that he espouses Christian Nationalism wasn’t surprising. He’s written clearly about his belief the U.S. was founded as a “Christian nation.” His campaign is even invoking such ideas in his reelection bid this year. But in the past, he had avoided embracing the “Christian Nationalism” label, even attempting to differentiate his vision from those who have adopted the term. Now, like some other conservative figures, he has embraced Christian Nationalism as a badge of honor. 

Best known for his fist pump to the pro-Trump mob outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 (before later running away from the crowd as they stormed the building), Hawley is an embodiment of the dangers Christian Nationalism poses to U.S. democracy. So while it’s not surprising to see Hawley again espouse Christian Nationalistic ideas, it is significant he has become only the second member of Congress — after Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia — to embrace the label. 

In addition to helping normalize Christian Nationalism with a senatorial endorsement, Monday’s speech and Hawley’s promotion of it on social media also seems to mark a new tone for him as he prepares to evangelize even more forcefully for transforming the character of the nation. Fist-pumping for Christian Nationalism isn’t just something Hawley does on insurrection mornings.

Hawley’s speech also did something else worth noting: He reframed the debate in economic, class terms. His populist vision of Christian Nationalism might be novel, but also demonstrates a definitional flaw of those pushing the ideology. So this issue of A Public Witness listens to Hawley’s speech to consider how he attempts to rewrite history and redefine Christianity to support his partisan gospel. 

Screengrab as Sen. Josh Hawley speaks during the National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C., on July 8, 2024.

Don’t Know Much About History

As Hawley attempted to build a vision of Christian Nationalism, he started with the fall of the Roman Empire. He mentioned that moment led Augustine of Hippo to pen a book reflecting on what happened and defending Christians against the accusation the Empire fell because of the adoption of that faith. Augustine’s famous work, The City of God, detailed a vision of the “City of Man” and the “City of God” to consider how the people of God should engage in earthly kingdoms. But while Augustine insisted Christians as members of God’s city should still engage in their earthly societies and governments, he didn’t cast the eternal “City of God” as synonymous with a “City of Man.” Hawley must’ve missed that point in CliffsNotes

“His dream became our reality. … We are a nation forged from Augustine’s vision,” Hawley insisted as he framed the U.S. as the embodiment of the “City of God” and cast Augustine as a Christian Nationalist theorist. “His philosophizing actually described an entirely new idea of the nation unknown to the ancient world: a new kind of nationalism, if you like — a Christian Nationalism organized around Christian ideals.”

Others have rejected such a reading that creates what Hawley called “Augustine’s Christian Nationalism.” For instance, Dr. George Lee, a theology professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, argued Augustine offered “insight” into understanding the danger of Christian Nationalism as defined by sociologists like Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry.

“Augustine’s political vision is utterly incompatible with the Christian Nationalism that Whitehead and Perry have analyzed. Unlike Christian Nationalists, Augustine rejects the centrality of any nation to God’s purposes in history,” Lee explained. “Christians must root their history and identity in Scripture as opposed to nationalist myths.”

Yet, for Hawley the Puritans were “practicing Augustinians” who came to create “the City on a Hill” — which in Jesus’s sermon is a phrase referring to followers of God, not members of a nation. Hawley then insisted the Puritans “gave us limited government and liberty of conscience and popular sovereignty.” The idea that the Puritans believed in “liberty of conscience” would come as quite a shock to religious dissenters banished from the colony (like Puritan minister John Wheelwright, Anne Hutchinson, and Roger Williams) or executed (like Mary Dyer, William Robinson, and Marmaduke Stephenson for being Quakers). The Puritans didn’t believe in religious liberty; they created a state that persecuted anyone who stepped outside the official orthodoxy. But for Hawley, the Puritans banishing and executing people because of religious beliefs are the heroes he wants to emulate in government today. 

Casting the Puritans as the founders of the American view of church-state relations, Hawley ignored what happened at the actual founding period of the United States as politicians like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and preachers like John Leland and Isaac Backus worked to separate church and state — even undoing the official state church in Massachusetts that the Puritans had set up generations earlier. But with all those pages missing from his history book, Hawley tried to equate the Puritan church-state vision with that of the United States. 

“The truth is, Christian Nationalism is not a threat to American democracy. Christian Nationalism founded American democracy,” claimed a man who supported an effort to overturn a democratic election as a violent mob waved Christian flags while storming the Capitol.

Building a Christian Nation

Insisting the U.S. was founded to be a “Christian nation,” Hawley argued that “the great loves that define America” are “work, family, God.” Thus, he called on Republicans — as “a party of a Christian nation” — to push those areas as policies. 

“Conservatives must defend our national religion and its role in our national life,” he argued. “They must defend this most fundamental and ancient of moral bonds — as Macaulay put it, “the ashes of [our] fathers, and the temples of [our] God.”

Hawley edited the line from Thomas Babington Macaulay’s poem about a pre-Christian Roman soldier. Not only did he change “his” to “our,” but he changed “gods” to “God.” Like the rest of his historical revision, he baptized the poem to make it support a Christian Nationalist vision it was never intended to back. 

With this rewriting of history (and poetry), Hawley wants to remake the U.S. into a “Christian nation.” For him, that means specifically pushing Christian symbols and language in public schools and government to mark this nation as a “Christian nation.” So he called for “prayer in schools” and for lifting up God in public buildings with the national motto.

“Why don’t we take down the trans flag from all of the public buildings over which it’s flying around the world and instead inscribe on every building owned or operated by the federal government, our national motto: ‘In God We Trust,’” he argued. “Our national faith is there on our currency: ‘In God We Trust.’ President Eisenhower summed it up well when he said about that motto back in 1954: “Here is the land of liberty — and the land that lives in respect of the Almighty’s mercy to us.”

What Hawley missed in the history there is that such efforts to mark this nation with that motto didn’t come from the founding era but later by people pushing Christian Nationalism. As documented in Baptizing America: How Mainline Protestants Helped Build Christian Nationalism, the phrase “In God We Trust” went on coins during the Civil War out of fears God might support the Confederacy since the Confederate Constitution defined the breakaway government as a “Christian” nation. In 1954, the phrase went on a postage stamp — with a ceremony where Eisenhower uttered that line Hawley quoted about the phrase that was not actually the nation’s motto yet. It didn’t become the official motto until 1956 and showed up on paper currency the next year. 

Hawley used examples from the 1950s — often called “civil religion” by scholars — to justify his Christian Nationalism today. And while Hawley now attends an evangelical church, he was raised in a United Methodist congregation that is part of the mainline Protestant tradition that created that earlier wave of Christian Nationalism like the motto. It’s exactly the stuff Hawley wants more of now: “We need more civil religion, not less. We need open acknowledgment of the religious heritage and the religious faith that bind Americans one to another.”

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) gestures toward a crowd of Donald Trump supporters gathered outside the U.S. Capitol to protest the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral college victory on Jan. 6, 2021. (Francis Chung/E&E News and Politicovia AP)

Hawley also articulated how this push to make the U.S. a “Christian nation” means some people will be second-class citizens, expected to promote religious ideas that they don’t actually agree with in order to be a good American. He insisted that “whether you are a Christian or not, a person of a different faith or none at all,” all people must work to “recover the principles of our Christian political tradition” because it is “the American tradition” and “it is the Christian tradition of nationalism that unites this country.”

“Work, home, God. These are the things we love together, that sustain our common life together, that make us a nation,” he added. “And this is what Christian Nationalism means, in the truest and deepest sense. Not every citizen of America is a Christian, obviously. Never has been, never will be. But every citizen is heir to the liberties, to the justice, to the common purpose our biblical and Christian tradition gives us.” 

He’s not for forced conversions, but he expects everyone to support Christianity in a privileged place in U.S. society and government. If not, he’ll attack you as not just anti-Christian but also anti-American as he did in his speech when he criticized “the Left.” 

While the partisanization of Christian Nationalism isn’t unusual, Hawley did offer a novel twist. 

From Culture War to Class War

One of the overarching themes of Hawley’s speech is that Christian Nationalism is “not for the rich or for the strong, but for the ‘poor in spirit,’ the common man.” He argued that we are “a nation defined by the dignity of the common man, as given to us in the Christian religion.”

Between discussing how we should be afraid of illegal migrants and college students protesting Israel’s war crimes against Palestinians, Hawley offered a fairly trenchant critique of our current situation: “Our economy has entered a new and decadent Gilded Age, where working-class jobs disappear and working wages erode and working families and neighborhoods fall apart — while denizens of the upper-class live a cloistered life behind gates and private security and woke CEOs rake in millions in pay.”

In order to save the United States from this, Hawley argued, conservatives must start by defending the common man’s religion. This will serve to fight elites and “the Left” who want to silence Christians and preach deliverance from God. He derisively declared, “Diversity, equity, and inclusion are their watchwords, their new holy trinity.”

While Hawley mostly caricatured anyone who is not a conservative Christian Nationalist, he’s unsparing and much more tethered to reality in critiquing the failures of his own party. He argued Republicans are currently too interested in capitalism’s “cold profit” and are “busy tending the dying embers of neoliberalism.”

“Republicans of the Bush-Romney era have championed libertarian economics and corporate interests. Their fusionist faith has become one note: money first, people last. In the name of ‘the market,’ these Republicans cheerleaded for corporate tax cuts,” he argued. “And somewhere along the line, Republicans fell in love with profit at any price. And they seem almost embarrassed that their most committed and reliable voters are people of faith.”

What, then, is his proposed solution to this problem? Republicans must alter their path and put people before money: “In the choice between capital and labor, between money and people, it’s time for Republicans to get back to their Christian and nationalist roots and start prioritizing the working man.”

Hawley drew quotes from pre-Civil Rights Movement Republicans Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt to argue that labor is superior to capital and manhood should come before business. Embracing this will make it possible to take on “woke corporations” through embracing private sector unions. (He made it clear which unions he doesn’t support: “I’m not talking about public sector unions.”)

Equivocating once again between civil religion and Christian Nationalism, he decried experts who have painted religion as divisive and out of bounds within the political sphere. Everyday Americans, he said, share “broad and basic religious convictions: theistic, biblical, Christian.” But it’s not just that he defines non-Christians as not really American; he also defines them as “the elite” instead of “the common man” or “working people” — regardless of their actual economic status.

“Working people believe in God, they read the Bible, they go to church — some often, some not. But they consider themselves in all events members of a Christian nation,” he argued. “The campaign to erase America’s religion from the public square is just class warfare by other means: the elite versus the common man, the atheistic monied class versus America’s working people.” 

Sen. Josh Hawley stands in his U.S. Senate office in Washington, D.C., on March 9, 2022. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

A Definitional Error

Jesus was indeed particularly concerned with people on society’s margins. But we should treat with skepticism a wealthy and powerful man who grew up as a banker’s son and attended Ivy League schools now claiming to speak for the working class as he tries to climb the political ladder. Even more so when his claims about the religiosity of blue-collar workers conflict with the overwhelming social science data on religion in America.

Ryan Burge, an American Baptist pastor who teaches political science at Eastern Illinois University, has noted that religion in the United States has “become a luxury good” for the middle class — not the working class.

“People with higher levels of education are less likely to identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular when it comes to religion,” Burge wrote. 

He demonstrated that people with a master’s degree have the highest levels of religious affiliation, while the most likely to be nonreligious are those who didn’t finish high school. And a similar relationship is present when measuring who attends services weekly. Using data from 15 years of the Cooperative Election Study, Burge showed that “the people who are the most likely to attend services this weekend are those with college degrees making $60K-$100K. In other words, middle class professionals.”

This certainly complicates Hawley’s Christian Nationalist narrative of atheist elites versus the religious common man. But ultimately, the argument fails because he makes a simple definitional error. 

What the data analyzed by Burge and others demonstrate is the absurdity of taking a category of people organized based on their economic status and then claiming they are instead organized by religion or some other completely different variable. It’s like dividing people up by race and then claiming one group are Christians and the other atheists. Or like dividing people by whether they prefer vanilla or chocolate ice cream and then claiming the two groups were organized according to whether they have a pet or not. Even if there’s some overlap in a Venn diagram, they aren’t synonymous categories. Even if Hawley was right that the working class was more likely to be Christian than wealthier “elites,” it still wouldn’t be a one-to-one association because dividing people by economic class is not the same as grouping them by faith.

This bait-and-switch approach is what all Christian Nationalism does. It might not always be as obvious as with Hawley’s attempt to make religion synonymous with class and anti-Christian Nationalism efforts equal to class warfare. But Christian Nationalism at its core takes a group of people defined by one variable (their national identity) and instead pretends they’re organized according to their religious identity. Such arguments like what Hawley offered aren’t just bad history; they demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of nations, economics, and the Christian faith. 

As a public witness, 

Brian Kaylor & Jeremy Fuzy