Christian Nationalism is like a skeleton key that can help us understand the motivations for some of the worst public policy proposals over the last few years. From anti-masking and challenging public health orders, to gun fetishists and police brutality, to anti-Semitism. And from seemingly ceremonial declarations like National Bible Week to attacking the Capitol and our democracy, Christian nationalism explains so much.
Even so, this understanding usually comes from data and scholarly study. It’s rare to hear a politician openly use Christian Nationalism to, for instance, defend voter suppression explicitly. Few have the courage to admit this tie so clearly. But yesterday, a bold senator from Mississippi, Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith stood up and did just that.
At a committee hearing on HR1, the For The People Act, the most important voting rights bill since the Voting Rights Act, Senator Chuck Schumer mentioned a new Georgia voter suppression bill that targets minority voters, especially Black and Jewish voters. The bill would limit voting on Sunday, including early voting, and essentially shut down “Souls to the Polls” initiatives historically used by Black churches to get out the vote.
Hyde-Smith, the latest in a long and shameful line of senators from Mississippi—including mediocrities such as Theodore Bilbo and James Vardaman—rose to defend the measure that seeks to make it harder for people to vote if they don’t look like her. And she turned to a Christian Nationalist motto and the Bible to justify her defense of disenfranchisement.
“Georgia is a Southern state just like Mississippi, and I cannot speak for Georgia, but I can speak for Mississippi on why we would never do that on Sunday or hold an election on a Sunday,” she began, tamely enough, only the invocation of “Southern state” isn’t so much a dog whistle as a police siren.
Holding up a dollar bill, Hyde-Smith continued:
This is our currency, this is a dollar bill. This says, “The United States of America, In God We Trust.” Etched in stone in the U.S. Senate chamber is “In God We Trust.” When you swore in all of these witnesses, the last thing you said to them in your instructions was, “so help you God.” And God’s Word in Exodus 20:18, it says “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” So that is my response to Sen. Schumer.
But here’s how “In God We Trust” came about. A preacher who wanted that heathen, “the Goddess of Liberty,” off our coins foisted the motto on the country by writing a letter demanding the Christian god go on our coinage to the Secretary of the Treasury who, in turn, told the Director of the Mint that “no nation can be strong except in the strength of God.” The Director of the Mint belonged to a group dedicated to amending our godless Constitution to add Jesus and who mistakenly and firmly believed that the United States “is a Christian nation.” In other words, three Christian nationalists backdoored their god onto our coins while the rest of the country was busy fighting a Civil War.
This is typical. Christian nationalists seize on times of national fear and crisis to impose their religion on all citizens and that later Christian nationalists—like Hyde-Smith—can point to those un-American artifacts as evidence to support their disinformation and, in this case, voter suppression efforts. The same thing happened with the wave of Christian Nationalism in the 1950s when “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Day of Prayer was established, “In God We Trust” was adopted as the motto and added to paper currency, and a prayer room was added to the US Capitol.
They’re rarely so open about linking their racism and voter suppression to Christian Nationalism. Most Christian nationalists are savvy enough to give fallacious reasons for racist voter suppression, such as preventing nonexistent voter fraud, rather than taking the opportunity to admit they want to force their religious beliefs on everyone else. Pulling out a dollar bill and reading “In God We Trust” on a dollar bill to justify hateful public policy is straight out of the Christian nationalist playbook.
That Hyde-Smith next turns to the Bible and its passages about slavery and thoughtcrime to justify disenfranchising Black voters is apt. She wrongly cited Exodus 20 verse 18, which is about trembling and lightning and thunder and generally being afraid of the biblical god, not the sabbath. The verse comes immediately after the prohibition on coveting your neighbor’s livestock, wives, and slaves—a doubly shameful rule that criminalizes thought while permitting slavery. One would think that a book that permits the treatment of humans as chattel to be owned is perhaps not a book on which to base public policy.
Hyde-Smith meant to cite verse 8, not 18. But that sabbath commandment is also followed by a recognition that owning other humans is acceptable: “the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave….”
In a way, it was refreshing to see the “If it’s Christian, it must be good’ charade dropped, even for a moment. We’ve known for a long time that Christian Nationalism is inherently racist. The data backs this up. The venn diagram of White Supremacy and Christian Nationalism is close to a circle. When we speak of Christian Nationalism we are really speaking about White Christian Nationalism (indeed, the very idea of a Christian nation means something very different to Black Americans who happen to be Christian). But Christian nationalists are rarely so open about it.
If any senator was likely to say the quiet part out loud, Hyde-Smith would have been a good bet. She joked about sitting in the front row at a public hanging during her campaign to win a senate seat in the state which had the highest number of recorded lynchings.
The Christian Nationalist identity draws legitimacy from the motto foisted upon this country during the Civil War and the Red scare. Our government is legitimizing Christian Nationalism. It’s time we get back to the de facto original motto: E pluribus unum, a motto that includes unity and equality and which could never be twisted in pursuit of white Christian nationalist voter suppression measures.