3rd place: Grad student essay contest — Hannah Howell

Hannah Howell

FFRF awarded Hannah $2,500.

By Hannah Howell

The aggrandizing of Christian nationalism poses a great threat to American principles and civil rights. Despite the United States’ founding as a secular nation, events throughout history have attempted to transform the country into a Christian-dominated nation, where political ideology and cultural norms are influenced by extremist thought. 

A false narrative romanticizing America’s history is the foundation of many Christian nationalist leaders. During times of political instability, this narrative re-emerges into American politics, peddled as what will “save” America. The call to regress rather than progress is particularly threatening. Given the country’s turbulent history with both race and gender, the call to “go back” is alarming, and puts many Americans’ freedoms at risk. Religious and political leaders alike peddle these sentiments with rhetoric synonymous with white power, violence and alt-right perspectives. The most recent example of this is the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. 

Footage of the event proves the underlying danger and existing power of white nationalist ideals. Rioters proudly wore “Camp Auschwitz” merchandise and swung Confederate flags. The sentiment behind this attack — the desire to restore America for God — is founded in a false belief that this violence and destruction was for a higher power. President Trump’s ideology heavily aligned with the Christian nationalist resurgence, promulgating the notorious slogan “Make America Great Again,” which may epitomize the foundation of Christian nationalist movements. The vague language leaves room for Americans to identify with it and think back to a time in their life that was “ideal” — ultimately viewing this slogan and its belief system through the rose-colored glasses of their own nostalgia. 

The harsh reality is that the time they wish to revert to never existed. As history points out, the same rhetoric was echoed in eras past. Instead of learning from history and expanding upon the freedoms established during the country’s infancy, religious extremists romanticize a nonexistent time. Trump might be the most notable and recent perpetrator of these ideas, but the rise of religious extremism, specifically Christian nationalism, is deeply ingrained in American history. Trump simply amplified these voices, culminating in the horrific incident at the Capitol. 

To fully understand the threat this movement has to current civil rights, it is imperative to view the rise of Christian nationalism in the context of the origins of our Constitution. The document is inherently secular, a testament to the Founding Fathers’ apprehension of the combining of church and state, from the generic language of “our creator” to the latter inclusion of the First Amendment. 

America was founded by freethinkers for the diverse population who call the United States home, a mission substantiated by the rhetoric and sentiments reflected in early documents. Attempts to use religion and grandiose Christian values to bolster the power of one group over another are a threat to the government’s structure. At the core of the Christian nationalist belief system is the linking of American and Christian values. 

The ensnaring of political and religious ideology only intensifies radicalism. Consequently, when Christian nationalism becomes not only a social movement but a political one, democratic institutions are threatened. Much like the Trump era, the 1970s saw an influx in Christian leaders becoming actively involved in politics — often referred to as the new Christian right during the Nixon and Reagan administrations. This right-wing group often used biblical teachings and scripture as guidance for political decisions, and to gain support and leverage political power. 

One prominent example was Christian minister and conservative political commentator Jerry Falwell. In 1976, he wrote, “The idea that religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country.” His desire to transform the United States into a Christian nation was clear and has echoed throughout history. 

In his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump adopted the dogma of Falwell, announcing, “I would like to thank the evangelical and religious community because I’ll tell you what. Because the support they’ve given me, and I’m not sure I totally deserve it, has been so amazing.” Under the Trump brand of politics, religion persisted as a dangerous and ubiquitous force in American dynamics. 

It is imperative the country uphold the First Amendment’s separation of church and state, promising “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This distinction, and protection it provides, is the only way to grow as a country and preserve the freedoms of all Americans. 

Hannah, 23, is from Corona, Calif., and attends Stanford University, where she is working toward a master’s degree in sustainable science and practice. As an undergrad, Hannah majored in art history while competing on the varsity softball team.