Christian nationalism after Trump remains a powerful and destructive force

This is not a time for unity in American politics. It’s a time for accountability.

Credit: Brett Davis/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

With Joe Biden finally inaugurated after a rocky transition period and a dubious first for America—a non-peaceful transfer of power—elite American influencers and legacy media outlets will no doubt be tempted to take their eyes off the festering fascism that brought Donald Trump to power. One key constituent element of the toxic brew that became Trumpism is Christian nationalism. It was prominently on display in the January 6 storming of the Capitol in the form of prayers, Christian flags, “Jesus 2020” signs, crosses, and more, and it will remain a powerfully destructive force in local, state, and national politics. Will the media do the responsible thing and continue to shine a spotlight on it?

Given that Biden is now calling for national “unity”—without emphasizing accountability for those who implemented hateful policies, committed crimes, incited violence, and engaged in corruption during the Trump presidency—the belated and modest progress we’ve seen in how major media outlets report on the Christian Right could be rapidly reversed. Americans invested in the health of their civil society must maintain pressure on media platforms to keep their reporting on the right track, which may help to prevent the resurgence of Christofascism four or eight years from now.

And count on this: the Christofascists will not go gently into that good night. They will be organizing, and we must keep the public informed of their activities and plans.

Conservatives, including those affiliated with the anti-Trump Lincoln Project that unfortunately became a darling of many liberals during the 2020 election cycle, have long since revealed their obvious investment in painting Trump as the problem, rather than a symptom of a problem with much deeper roots—one for which they bear much responsibility. If these conservatives have their way, no one will face real accountability for the horrors of the Trump years and their violent culmination—no one except, maybe, Trump himself. Although even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, one of Trump’s greatest enablers since the 2016 election, agreed not to obstruct  an unprecedented second impeachment trial that will take place in the Senate even with Trump already out of office, it looks like the Republican senators will once again refuse to convict Trump. After all, that’s what “unity” means to Republicans, the ostensible “party of personal responsibility”—no consequences for the destruction they have wrought.

If “unity” wins the day, there will be no justice for the victims of those who, under the auspices of the Trump presidency, violated the human rights of asylum seekers, presided over a grossly incompetent response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the concomitant spreading of disinformation, and incited the mob that invaded the Capitol on January 6. The reputations of high-level Trump administration officials and associated enablers will be rehabilitated; their lucrative, high-profile careers will be back on track.

Meanwhile, cable news and the major media outlets will likely tread lightly at best around the structural problems in America that give the Right disproportionate power. If this happens,  conditions will be ripe for the rise of a smoother, more competent fascist leader than Trump. The Republican Party remains a bastion of far-right authoritarianism, and, while many Republican leaders seemed embarrassed in the immediate aftermath of the January 6 insurrection, they are now mostly trying to simply “move on” as if it never happened.

In addition to holding GOP leadership to account, we must continue to shine a bright light on the Christian Right’s anti-democratic ideology. It would be a serious mistake to end the long overdue media scrutiny of evangelicalism precipitated by authoritarian Christians’ overwhelming support for Trump. The contrast of a brash, pussy-grabbing, impious bully with the hitherto “respectable” image of “family values” politics drew constant (if still often poorly informed) media attention throughout Trump’s term in office. But that could change with Democrats in charge of both the presidency and—tenuously—Congress. The Christian supremacism that pervades America’s elite public sphere is too little acknowledged, and it would be easy for many journalists to fall back into whitewashing and breezy bothsidesism in their coverage of authoritarian Christians.

Already, prominent evangelical Trump supporters are attempting to gaslight the public. Initially, Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son and the head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, said publicly that he believed Trump’s lie about the election having been “stolen” from him. He also said that he supported the efforts of right-wing Christian senators to overturn the election. Now, with Biden installed as president and possible legal repercussions for prominent people who promoted the lies, Graham denies any responsibility for inciting the January 6 insurrection. Even worse, he now insists, against a massive trove of video evidence, that he has seen no evidence of Christian involvement in the invasion of the Capitol (though he admits Christians were present at the rally on the National Mall).

Going forward, how will journalists report on such things—if they report on them at all? And what will those few influential white evangelicals who have been surprisingly willing to reckon with evangelical involvement in January 6—especially Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, writer David French, and head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm Russell Moore—do? Will it be back to culture-warring as usual?

French, at least, continues to blame “both sides” for America’s polarization when the Right is demonstrably far more to blame than the Left, and is stressing national unity in a way that glosses over the rot inherent in right-wing Christian ideology. And while he writes movingly of the harassment he and his family members suffered for their opposition to Trump, this does not seem to have taught him to empathize with LGBTQ folks like me, who are disproportionately subjected to bullying but not supposed to exist according to French’s theology. I suspect that so long as we are invisible to French, so will be his theology’s role in the rise of Trumpism.

Since February 2020 and over the course of the presidential election cycle through President Biden’s Inauguration, it has been my privilege to write a monthly column for The Conversationalist about the Christian Right’s politics, focusing mostly on evangelicals and Trump. While this monthly assignment now comes to an end, I plan to remain a frequent contributor to this outlet. For now, I would like to leave my readers with the following thoughts.

White evangelicals have consistently been America’s most loyal and enthusiastic Trump-supporting demographic since 2016; to say they have not taken the results of our recent presidential election well would be classic Midwestern understatement. (I am a Hoosier; don’t hate.) Many are still in denial. Most white evangelicals live in an authoritarian world rife with conspiracy theories and “alternative facts”; and that, combined with their powerful and well-heeled institutions and lobbies, means that their anti-pluralist aims will remain a serious threat to American democracy.

My 2020 reporting and commentary will remain here, bearing witness, as the country moves on from Trump. I would ask that we all do what we can to keep America’s far Right, including the Christian Right, under media scrutiny, so that we might be better prepared for the political battles to come.

Chrissy Stroop

Chrissy Stroop grew up in central Indiana and Colorado Springs, Colorado, attending evangelical schools in both places before going on to earn a B.A. in history and German from Ball State University in 2003 and a Ph.D. in modern Russian history from Stanford University in 2012. She is co-editor, together with Lauren O'Neal, of a collection of personal essays by former conservative Christians called Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church. Follow her on Twitter @c_stroop.