To claim that America is or was a Christian nation is to assume that the meaning of such a term is unequivocal and clear. And yet, for as long as the term Christian has circulated in the United States, it has been appropriated and deployed by diverse parties, each hoping to meld certain political priorities to the sacred ethos of the faith. This practice infuses our political life and, very recently, our current debates over immigration policy, with different sides choosing opposing biblical interpretations. Sometimes, these political priorities have been liberal, others conservative; some have concerned foreign policy, others domestic; and while some have been concerned with class, others have focused upon matters of race and sex, among others. Ultimately the Christian-ness of America must depend on which Christian is providing the measure.
In his new book, Christian: The Politics of a Word in America, historian Matthew Bowman documents a few of the many forms that Christianity has assumed over the past 150 years. Beginning just after the Civil War and working forward to the rise of Donald Trump, Bowman demonstrates how the faith has been claimed and counter-claimed by a wide variety of American actors, lending itself to a fascinating array of campaigns and causes, and always revising itself along the way.
Bowman is associate professor of history at Henderson State University. His previous books include The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith and The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism. Eric C. Miller spoke with Bowman about the project over the phone. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
R&P: What is a Christian in America?
MB: I argue that there is no single definition of that word. Instead, Christianity can be understood as an essentially contested concept—an abstract notion like justice or art that is by its very nature disputed because there is no single authority to render a definitive judgment.
Throughout American history, Christianity has been endlessly disputed and, by virtue of that disputation, has injected a great deal of dynamism into American politics and society. Paradoxically, by lending itself to so much appropriation and contestation, it has helped inspire religious, social, and political pluralism in the United States—which is not the way Americans are accustomed to thinking about the role of Christianity in their society.
R&P: What is Christian republicanism?
MB: Christian republicanism refers to one way in which Americans have defined what Christianity is and what implications it has for American politics and society. It derives from American Protestantism and associates Christianity with two essential elements.
The first of these elements is individual liberty. Protestants have long stressed individual autonomy and the importance of an individual encounter with God and Jesus Christ for salvation. In the American context particularly, that notion has influenced Americans’ political emphasis on autonomy and personal liberty.
It’s tempered, though, by the second element, which is the emphasis on virtue. This is owed in part to the traditional Protestant understanding of what it means to be a Christian, but it’s also derived from the early American admiration for classical societies like the Greeks and the Romans. The Roman writers that the American founders were reading emphasized that a self-governing society requires a virtuous citizenry. Christianity provided an effective means for promoting civic virtue because of its particularly Protestant emphasis on character and moral behavior.
This way of thinking about Christianity has been common—though not uncontested—throughout American history. It has taken different forms at different times in different places and been spoken of in a variety of different ways, but the presumed relationship between Christianity and American democratic government has been widely present since the founding.
R&P: The Christian republicanism that you document is very white and very Western—it arises in Europe and culminates in the triumph of “Western Civilization.” How have African American Christians responded to this standard Christian story?
MB: At points, many African Americans have seized upon Christian republican ideology, asserted their faith in it, and then used it to attack white Americans’ complicity in and complacency with slavery, segregation, and racism. These African Americans have argued that, for Americans to live up to the ideals of Christian republicanism—including liberty, autonomy, and virtue—slavery and racism and injustice must be rejected.
But there have also been African Americans who have rejected this notion and have argued that the ideology of Christian republicanism has wedded Christianity to the West and to whiteness, and that this is both a corruption and a limitation of Christianity. Instead, according to these Christians, true Christian values are found elsewhere—often in Africa. During the 1950s and 1960s, many African Americans argued that true Christian civilization was in South Africa, in the struggle against Apartheid, or in Ghana, where people of color overthrew white colonists.
So, at times African Americans embraced Christian republicanism, and at other times they rejected it, which I think is a nice microcosm of the contested nature of Christianity in the United States.
R&P: How have Catholics found a home in American Christianity?
MB: Much like African Americans, Catholics have defined what a Christian society would look like in a variety of ways. Particularly before the mid-twentieth century, Catholics tended to imagine it in ways that were starkly different from the Protestant vision. While Protestants emphasized liberty and individual rights, Catholics tended to think that a Christian society should be far more communal and collective, reflecting the nature of the Roman Catholic Church as the body of Christ. This vision led many Catholics, such as John Ryan and Dorothy Day, to argue that the industrial, free market capitalism of the time was unchristian, and that it should be replaced with a more structured society. As a result, Catholics often suffered from a certain degree of alienation from Protestant America that made them vulnerable to suspicion from Protestants who did not believe that Catholics were truly democratic.
By the mid-twentieth century, however, all sorts of international pressures—such as fascism and communism, as well as the Vatican II reforms in the early 1960s—brought many American Catholics into closer accord with Protestants. They concluded that the threat of communism in particular was an overwhelming challenge. American Catholics made common cause with Protestants who were also fearful of communism, and they came together to create what I call a Cold War Christian consensus, in which Protestants and Catholics agreed that Christianity should, above all else, preserve human dignity, and that communism was a materialist philosophy that stood in opposition to that aim.
R&P: Say a bit more about the Cold War Christian consensus?
MB: Throughout the early twentieth century, there was a great deal of argument about what a Christian society should look like. During the Cold War, in the 1940s and 50s, American Christians of many varieties came to perceive communism as an overriding materialist threat, far more serious than any other that Christianity had confronted to date. And so, they began to seek alliances. This is the period when the term Judeo-Christian first came into use, as Christians sought to find common ground to preserve Western Civilization against the threat of communism in the East.
In the early twentieth century, when Protestants spoke about Western Civilization, they referred to the Protestant countries of Northern and Western Europe, along with the United States. During the 1950s, the notion of Western Civilization began to broaden as the enemy became associated with the East—communist Russia and the Slavic states in particular. Christians began to downplay a lot of the theological differences that had separated Catholics and Protestants historically, and instead emphasized the common creed that Christianity was about the dignity and the holiness of the individual person, and that communism was a threat to that regardless of which type of Christian you were. For many of these Christians, who would come to be called the mainline and were the descendants of nineteenth century Protestant liberalism, doctrinal specificity and theology became less important than one’s allegiance to a broader notion of civilization and to the old Protestant values of liberty and morality.
R&P: How did the Religious Right corner the market on Christian?
MB: There were some dissenters from this Cold War Christian consensus, including some Christian groups who did not like the willingness to downplay doctrine in exchange for ecumenism. Among these were the forerunners of what would later be known as the Religious Right. These Christians insisted upon the importance of Christian particularity. They believed that downplaying these things would actually undermine American democracy because for them it was these particulars of faith that made possible human freedom.
Through the 1970s and into the early 80s, many of these groups began mobilizing. They perceived the ecumenism of the consensus as another materialist threat in disguise. They were critical of government, of the welfare state, and argued that true Christianity would emphasize freedom from government. By the 1980 election, they had organized the Moral Majority and the Christian Voice and a number of other organizations that brought a lot of people into the political process for the first time. It didn’t take them long at all to achieve some remarkable political victories.
R&P: During those years, the Moral Majority pledged to represent clean-living Americans in their fight against public immorality—the type of behavior popularly associated with figures like Donald Trump. Now, a strong majority of white evangelicals support Trump’s presidency. In light of this shift, what does Christian mean today?
MB: It continues to mean a lot of different things! But for white evangelicals in particular, I would argue this: The Religious Right—people who supported Jerry Falwell in the 1970s and 80s and who support Donald Trump now—saw the ecumenism of the Cold War Christian consensus undermining Western Civilization as they understood it. They saw growing religious diversity—beginning in the 1960s when Congress loosened immigration laws and Eastern religions began to assert a large presence in American culture for time, when, for instance, the Beatles began to promote transcendental meditation and the like. They saw a growing tide of Latin American Catholics in the United States, and they saw this increasingly generic religious ecumenism as aiding and abetting this change. And because, over the course of American history, the notion of Christianity had become so bound to this idea of the “Western”—that is, the Protestant, the European, and the white—they came to perceive a threat to one as a threat to the other.
It is my belief that, for many of these people, Donald Trump—who is a man of very little Christian conviction in his own life but who has promised to defend Western Civilization—is perceived to understand this threat, even if he himself does not practice Christianity very well.
R&P: Jeff Sessions recently caused controversy by citing Romans 13—on the importance of submitting to worldly authorities—in defense of the Trump Administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents. What do you make of this?
MB: What’s interesting about this argument to me is how well it encapsulates the sort of fundamental dispute about the meaning of Christianity I’m talking about here. Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son and a leading figure in the Religious Right, has denounced this practice as destructive of families. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has likewise denounced the policy, but for different reasons: They have framed it as a question of society’s responsibility to ensure all peoples’ right to life. Both statements reflect their particular concerns. The question here is not whether Sessions is “right” about his interpretation of Romans 13. The Bible is subject to as many interpretations as there are interpreters. Rather, what strikes me about it is the way he invokes the passage to defend his broader vision of what a Christian society means to him: one rooted in the Euro-American concept of Western civilization. The passage, of course, has been used to defend power structures for a long time, and Sessions is no exception to that.
R&P: I know historians do not like to speculate about the future, but would you care to venture a guess as to where American Christianity is heading in the coming years?
MB: There are two trends that I see at work here. The first is that Donald Trump has caused a major fracture among white evangelicals. Many do support him, as we just discussed, but many others do not. I think this old coalition—that was the Religious Right—is starting to come apart. Younger evangelicals do not feel the same allegiance to it as older evangelicals did. Younger evangelicals are embracing a broader range of issues, including things like environmentalism and social justice, and I think that trend will continue.
On the other hand, many of the Christian churches that formed the core of the Cold War Christian consensus—the mainline denominations, in particular—continue to struggle. There have been sociologists who have written about the ways that churches that maintain a separation from society tend to attract firmer allegiances, and these churches are grappling with that issue. Certainly, more recent sociological work has been calling that thesis into question, so whether or not they are able to turn their demographic struggles around is yet to be seen.
In both of these cases, we are seeing that American Christianity is diverse, and fragmented, and likely to continue to be so.