Mark Hall, historian and author of Whos Afraid of Christian Nationalism: Why Christian Nationalism Is Not an Existential Threat to America or the Church, was flying home on January 6th, 2021. During a layover, a reporter for the progressive Evangelical magazine Sojourners emailed him about religious symbols seen at the January 6 riots. While Hall did recognize a few such symbols, he warned the reporter that this was not a basis to describe the riot in the Capitol as a Christian event. This caution went unheeded and the reporter “published an article about how Christian nationalists had attacked the Capitol.” The article, Hall noted, “featured three photographs containing religious images and words, none of which were from the assault on the Capitol.  Similar stories could be found in various outlets throughout the nation. Reporters were going to get their Christian nationalist insurgency, whether it had actually happened or not.” 

Hall’s first chapter looks at the developmental history of the term “Christian nationalism” and how a generation of anti-Evangelical writers contrived of a Christian nationalist insurgency to retroactively justify long-held commitments to removing Christians from politics. Although anti-Evangelical polemics have been common since the 1980s, George W. Bush’s presidency saw the publication of books warning of a fundamentalist theocracy rise to a fever pitch.  Hall notes that since 2006, “far too many quixotic journalists, activists, and academics have tilted at the windmill of Christian nationalism. Most of these works are polemics.”  

The book’s second chapter explains how anti-Christian nationalist texts  

“rely more on rhetoric than arguments, and when authors provide evidence, they often make erroneous or overstated claims based on it. A major aim of the polemical critics is to cast aspersions on conservative Christians who bring their faith into the public square.” 

 These anti-Christian nationalist writers were not, it should be noted, accusing merely new right or Trumpist politicians of being Christian nationalists. George W. Bush, warned two psychohistorians in 2005, “chooses his talented, focused, devoted, and often fanatical advisors with great care to fulfill his own agenda.” That agenda, the authors warned, was a Christian fascist agenda. George Bush, they warned, wore “his faith on his sleeve. It is counterintuitive and certainly not rational, but we must recognize that Bush and these new Republicans want to increase the dangers of more terrorism, because it fits their paranoid mindset, their fundamentalist religious commitments, and what can only be called their neo-fascist political orientation.”1  

The book’s third chapter is the most important in a scholarly sense. Hall is fair to critics of Christian nationalism, taking their arguments seriously. He focuses on Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry’s overly expansive definition of Christian nationalism, which “includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity.” If that sounds like word salad, it’s because it is. Essentially, Perry and Whitehead make a list of things that sound bad and then attribute them to Christian nationalism. Almost all anti-Christian nationalist authors rely on the work of Randall Balmer, whom Hall refers to as a disgruntled Evangelical.  

Hall is a careful scholar, meticulously addressing Balmer’s arguments. My own thought as a historian of religion in America is that much Christian nationalism fear mongering is a response to the failures of the Carter Administration. Many progressive leaning Evangelical historians thought that Carter’s ascendency marked the pinnacle of Christian political theology and would thus usher in a center-left paradise. When that did not happen, center-right Christian politicians became scapegoats for the failure of the evangelical left, epitomized in Carter.  

In chapter four, Hall tries to identify the small number of Christians who do meaningfully embrace Christian nationalism. Yes, the term “Christian nationalism” serves primarily as a progressive canard, yet a small but vocal niche of committed Calvinists have still come to embrace the label. “The emergence of Americans actually claiming to be Christian nationalists,” Hall notes, “was a gift to the critics of Christian nationalism.” Finally, the critics could point to some evidence—however tenuous––of a theocratic movement bent on taking over America for Christ. That specific books praising Christian nationalism “were portrayed as bestsellers only helped the critics’ case. Unfortunately for the critics, if one bothers to read these works, it becomes evident that they will be of interest only to a handful of idiosyncratic, patriarchal Calvinists who are not interested in the United States as a nation.”  

Thankfully, Hall uses his fifth chapter to provide a sturdy definition of what Christian nationalism actually is, contra its more sensational critics. Christian nationalism historically, Hall argues,  

“is best understood as the view that the country was founded as a Christian nation and, consequently, that national, state, and local governments should protect and promote Christianity in special ways. Christian nationalists usually believe that other faiths should be tolerated but that the governments do not need to treat all religions equally.”  

Hall rightfully notes that Christian nationalists want to specifically privilege Christianity. To make the image more useful, an actual Christian nationalist would privilege Christian worship in aways that they would not protect Judaism, which is how Christian nationalism worked in many nations through the longue durée of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Christianity was socially and culturally privileged, but other faiths enjoyed wide toleration. Hall isn’t an advocate for Christian nationalism—he makes that clear—but he also isn’t convinced that actual Christian nationalism would make the United States a theocracy or Medieval. The favoritism shown by historic Christian nationalists  “is not of the heavy-handed variety that marked all countries populated by Christians before the mid-eighteenth century. Indeed, if today’s Christian nationalists had their way, at worst governments would return to the 1950s approach to church-state relations. Christian nationalism, as it manifested itself in the mid-twentieth century, was a relatively benign phenomenon.” Certainly “some Americans objected to it, but it is hard to argue that anyone was harmed in any meaningful way.” 

The book’s final chapter describes recounts past Christian political engagement and explores what a healthy Christian politics can look like today. Hall rightly notes that American Christians should be involved in politics, not because America is particularly favored by God, but because government is a God-ordained institution and must be cultivated. This is good advice for any healthy liberal democracy, with Hall making clear that his work is not Amerocentric, though most of his readers will be American Christians.  

Hall has written a necessary and important book at an important moment in the history of American Christianity. Historians, clergy, and laypeople will find different aspects of the book interesting for different reasons, but Hall’s latest work has no weaknesses. The best part is Hall’s dismantling of academic tropes that, while having little basis in fact, have nevertheless are repeated so often as to be treated as facts. He shows that the influence of RJ Rushdoony, for example, was relatively narrow and that actual theocratic commitments among American Christians are comically rare.  

The theocracy scares preceding every general election are contrived, often in the service of demonizing conservative policy rather than principled concerns over actual theocratic politics. While Hall treats Christian nationalists fairly—he rejects calling them fascists or authoritarians—he nonetheless argues that Christianity does not require Christian nationalism for Christians to faithfully engage in politics. Hall has made a career showing Christians their rich history of virtuous political engagement premised on the notion that Christianity is essential to the intellectual, moral, and social framework America rests on; his latest book is no exception.